Making people happy with food is something I love to do and chicken parmesan is one of those dishes that has a high happiness probability curve, if there is such a thing for foods. The extra bonus for me is that I love it too! In truth, Italian food has always been my favorite – especially southern Italian. I have a thing for tomato sauce – really good intensely tomatoey tomato sauce – made with great tomatoes, fruity olive oil, a hint of garlic, a touch of crushed red pepper and fresh, slivered basil stirred in at the end. So here’s what chicken parmesan has going for it: tender scallops of boneless chicken breast coated with crisp breadcrumbs, covered with a velvety rich tomato sauce and two kinds of melted cheese… add to that some pasta to soak up some more of that delicious tomato sauce and I’m getting happy just thinking about it.
I have made tomato sauce from scratch – using fresh plum tomatoes. It can be great if the tomatoes are ripe. But I’ve found it difficult to find good tomatoes consistently when I need them. If you use the right canned tomatoes for sauce, you can get amazing results – much better than trying to make a fresh tomato sauce with underripe, flavorless tomatoes. I’ve paid close attention to taste tests over the years and the consensus is that the best canned tomatoes are either those from San Marzano, Italy or Muir Glen Organic tomatoes, grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In both cases the tomatoes are picked at the peak of ripeness, so they are fruity and deep red and make delicious sauce.
While the sauce is simmering, pound the chicken to make thin scallops: put the chicken breast half into a large baggie and pound it evenly with a meat mallet or a rolling pin until you get the desired thickness.
Then the scallops are breaded in the traditional way – dipped first into flour, then into egg, then into bread crumbs or Panko crumbs.
The breaded scallops are browned in oil for a minute or two per side.
The chicken parmesan is assembled in layers – sauce, chicken, more sauce, parmesan and mozzarella. Then it goes into the oven, where the chicken finishes cooking and the cheese melts.
Here’s to making people happy with food!
- For the Sauce
- ⅓ cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced (1 tablespoon)
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 24-ounce cans plum tomatoes (Imported San Marzano or Muir Glen organic are best)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 10-12 basil leaves, slivered plus extra for garnishing
- For the Chicken
- 4 whole boneless skinless chicken breast halves (about 2 pounds)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- ½ cup flour
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups plain bread crumbs or Panko
- Oil for sautéing
- ½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese plus extra for sprinkling on top
- 8 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced (or grated mozzarella)
- Preheat oven to 350º F
- Make the sauce: Open the cans of tomatoes and set aside. Put oil, garlic and red pepper flakes into a large, nonreactive pot. Turn the heat to medium. Keep watch. As soon as the garlic starts to sizzle, stir it around for 20-30 seconds, but don’t let it brown. Pour in the tomatoes and salt. Stir to combine. As soon as everything starts to bubble, turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook the sauce for 20 minutes, uncovered. If you like your sauce chunky, use the back of a wooden spook to break up the tomatoes. If you like your sauce smooth, puree in a food processor or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce in the pot. Just before using, stir in slivered basil.
- Pound the chicken While the sauce is simmering, pound the chicken breast halves by putting one half breast into a large ziplock baggie. Using a meat mallet or a heavy rolling pin, pound the breast gently and evenly12-20 times, starting at the middle and working towards the edges, until you get an even thickness of about ½ to1/4 inch. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
- Bread the Chicken: Set out a large plate and pour the flour onto it. Next to that put the eggs into a wide shallow bowl and whisk them. Next to the eggs put a large plate with the breadcrumbs on it. Season the chicken breasts with salt, to taste, on both sides. Then dredge with flour. Shake off the excess. Then dip the breast into the egg and coat both sides, allowing the excess to drip off. Then press the breast into the crumbs to coat both sides. Put the breaded chicken onto a plate and set aside while you repeat the process with the rest of the chicken.
- Brown the chicken: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Place two of the chicken breast in the pan and cook for one to two minutes per side, just until you get a nice golden brown crust. You may need to add a bit more oil, if the pan seems too dry when you flip the chicken over. Remove the scallops to a plate. Add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the pan and brown the other two scallops.
- Assemble the chicken parmesan Spread about a cup of sauce over the bottom of a large casserole or baking pan. Arrange the browned chicken cutlets on top. Pour 2 cups of sauce evenly over the cutlets. Sprinkle ½ cup parmesan evenly over the top. Then add the mozzarella cheese. Cook in the middle of the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the cheese is melted.
- Serve with spaghetti, topped with the extra sauce. Sprinkle chicken and pasta with parmesan and basil.