Originating in the United States, chicken parmigiana is a beloved Italian-American staple any way you fry it. What many people might not know is that earlier echoes of the dish in Italy were lighter and more vegetal: Think eggplant, zucchini, and artichoke. Lightly fried (sometimes breaded, sometimes not), then served with a fresh tomato sauce and a little Parmesan, these vegetables were a celebration of summer produce.
“Veal and chicken parmigiana, along with their cousins meatball, sausage and shrimp, are more recent adaptations,” writes Melissa Clark for The New York Times, “created by Italian immigrants in America who could afford to use meat in place of the vegetables they relied on in the Old Country.”
In writing this month’s column, I caught myself at first wanting to publish the recipe, a crispy chicken Parmesan for one, in a later month when the weather would be cooler. But as I cooked it over and over, tweaking it and having it for lunch, dinner, and even breakfast in the thick heat of my small Manhattan kitchen, I realized what a perfect warm-weather dish it was: Though still made with chicken, my version draws more inspiration from the vegetal Italian dish it was based on. It’s a touch lighter, first of all, than the baked casseroled versions you might be used to ordering at red-sauce joints across the United States. This is in large part due to its summery base, which takes advantage of the season’s bounty of fresh tomatoes.
Starting with a couple vine-ripened tomatoes or a handful of sweet cherry tomatoes (though you could use whatever tomatoes you like) means you can make as little or as much sauce as you need. In this case, one serving. Borrowing from Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce, my solo version starts with those fresh tomatoes plus a little onion and butter.
Her recipe calls for a long, leisurely 45-minute simmer, but I find that 20 to 30 minutes is sufficient here; in that time, juicy summer tomatoes burst and reduce gorgeously, concentrating both in volume and in flavor, while still maintaining their bright, fruity quality. Also unlike the Marcella sauce, which calls for taking out the onion or chopping it up and placing it back in, I like to blend everything together into a light pink emulsion. Sort of tastes like vodka sauce. I love this step because it means the onions really cohere with the tomatoes, lending their grand sweetness; additionally, the blitzing aerates the butter, making the sauce’s texture velvety and its flavor light.
There’s lightness in the breaded chicken, as well—I like to use lean breast meat for this recipe. Once bashed into a super-thin cutlet with a rolling pin, preferably between two layers of parchment paper (or in a large zip-top bag), the chicken breast begins to tenderize. Bashing your breast like this also means faster and more even cooking later—and juicier meat, too.
As J. Kenji López-Alt explains in his Serious Eats column, a cutlet that thin doesn’t have room for what he calls a “temperature differential gradient.” Think of all the dried-out chicken breasts in your life: In trying to cook through the insides, often what happens is the outsides get overcooked. With a pounded-out chicken breast that only needs a minute or two per side in the pan, however, you can get both the outsides and the insides to that ideal temperature of 165°F at nearly the same time. For this reason, you’d have to work extra hard (and overcook the heck out of your chicken cutlet) to really dry it out. “It's not an easy feat to accomplish,” López-Alt says.
As for the breading, this Parm is different from most in that it doesn’t adhere to the classic flour, egg, bread crumb sitch. Instead, like Emma Laperruque’s chicken schnitzel or Claire Saffitz’s “Magic Crispy Chicken”, it starts with a wet coating of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise, which does some additional work of seasoning and tenderizing the otherwise bland chicken breast further. I love this trick, too, because one of the greatest issues I’ve always had with fried cutlet recipes is that you always seem to waste some egg during the dredging process—and I hate wasting egg. Anyway, what is mayo but eggs and oil?
For breading, I use panko because I like the way it fries up shatteringly crisp (due to the increased surface area of those lovely little flakes). But as someone who grew up on those “Italian-style” bread crumbs from the can, whose nostalgic “Italian-American” flavor I still want, I reach for a couple powerhouse pantry staples to sprinkle into my panko: garlic powder and dried oregano (the latter of which makes everything taste like pizza to me). And just to drive the “parmigiana” point home, a fat sprinkling of Parmesan cheese goes into this breading, as well, lending great flavor and texture to the chicken.
The flaky panko bread crumbs, coupled with the pounded-out chicken breast (again, we’re talking super thin) means you only need to stand at the stove for five minutes max, shallow-frying the cutlet in a couple scant tablespoons of olive oil. Further minimizing unnecessary heat is the lack of an oven step: Usually recipes will ask you to turn on your broiler to melt the cheese, but all I do, lazily, is lay over a couple slices of fresh, milky mozzarella and cover the pan with a lid. The cheese will melt in the residual heat, offering that signature mild counterpoint to the sour-sweet tomato sauce and salty, savory cutlet. No oven.
Finally, as much as I’ve waxed lyrical about the fresh tomato sauce and the cheesy-crunchy cutlet, the key to this recipe lies, for me, in the plating. Inspired by Gordon Ramsay and Chef John of Food Wishes, I like to lay the sauce down on the plate first, then top it with the crispy cutlet. I find that this eats better and stays crunchier than the more traditional layering of chicken, sauce, then cheese, which just becomes soggy after a while. You’ve done all this work—why not maintain those textures?
You could serve this solo chicken Parmesan with spaghetti or a hunk of bread. But I like to eat it as is: a saucy, protein-rich dinner that keeps me full for hours on end. Though I wouldn’t say no to a bitter green salad to go with—think arugula, watercress, or Little Gem lettuce, something bright and vegetal to contrast the cheesy, bready bits. Whatever you choose to eat this with, you can take great pride in the fact that you’ve made an effort to treat yourself to a truly proper chicken dinner for one.
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