All right, enough procrastinating. One of the main reasons I started this blog was to work my way through my father’s cookbook, recreating and adapting his recipes to my own liking. But once the blog was up and running, I got distracted by the things I’ve been cooking in my normal life and wanted to share those instead—breakfast sandwiches, wedding cakes (normal?), and the like. No more. My first recipe from pop’s arsenal is one of the very first dishes he taught me; I used to make this almost every night of the week after an attempt finally got a stamp of approval, at 13 years of age. It is a culinary classic that no one is a stranger to—the infamous Chicken Parmesan.
Available everywhere from your neighborhood pizza shop to your Aunt Theresa’s kitchen, this dish has all but fallen into obscurity, via the second to last page of every Italian restaurant’s menu. Chicken Parmesan, or “Chicken Parm” as we Italian-Americans like to call it, is pretty straightforward in concept. Breaded chicken breast, sauce, cheese, done. Examine every detail of this dish more closely however, and you’ll find that there are quite a number of ways to end up with a badly-executed version—and trust me, there are plenty out there. Some of the main offences include: dry/overcooked chicken, leathery semi-melted cheese, soggy breading, and halfhearted tomato sauce. With all of these red flags in mind, I set out to create a recipe that will cut down on the late-night delivery from Vinny’s down the street in favor of this home-cooked version any night of the week.
A great tomato sauce is an essential component to the success of this dish. When making sauce with canned tomatoes, I always use San Marzano, no questions asked. After experimenting with about 15 different brands of canned tomatoes, I found that these have the best and most consistent flavor; you’ll never be disappointed. For Chicken Parm, I go with a fairly simple 30-minute sauce infused with basil. The consistency of the finished product should be about as thick as hot cereal/oatmeal. Make sure to stir constantly when simmering to prevent anything from burning at the bottom of the pot.
Breading can often be under-seasoned and heavy, overpowering the flavor of the actual meat it’s coating. Pulling a couple of tips from America’s Test Kitchens, I used a combination of Panko bread crumbs, grated Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese, freshly ground black pepper and crushed chili flakes to make the coating for the chicken. The Parmesan breading crisps up and browns incredibly well, adding another level of flavor to the dish. Plus, who doesn’t like more cheese?
My father taught me the traditional way to finish this dish: spread some sauce on the bottom of a baking dish, add the breaded chicken breasts, more sauce, and top with cheese before broiling in the oven. Sure, the flavors are great, but I’ve found that this usually leads to a soggy chicken breast in the end; and what’s the point of spending all that time creating a beautiful brown and crisp piece of chicken if it inevitably becomes soggy? To combat soggy breading syndrome, or SBS (likely the only time I’ll use that acronym), I decided to melt the cheese on the chicken breast BEFORE adding the sauce. This creates a barrier that allows the chicken to stay nice and crisp even after adding your sauce. Also, I wanted a cheese with a bit more sharpness, so instead of using fresh mozzarella, I used a blend of Provolone and Italian Fontina cheeses.
To myself and to many, Chicken Parm is the epitome of comfort food. But even a dish as simple as fried chicken and cheese shouldn’t have to be a bland gut-bomb of regret. With a couple of additional steps and some extra attention to detail, you can tell Aunt Theresa you won’t be making it over this time; you’ll have comfort food you can be proud of right in your own home.
- 2 (8oz) skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced in half and pounded thin
- ½ cup (2oz) Italian Fontina cheese, shredded
- ½ cup (2oz) Provolone cheese, shredded
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup Panko breadcrumbs
- ½ cup finely grated Parmiggiano Reggiano, plus more for garnish
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon chili flakes
- ¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
Basic Tomato Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 (28-oz) can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
- ½ of a red onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ of a medium sized carrot, finely grated
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Pinch of chili flakes
- 2 large stalks of basil, plus a few leaves chopped for garnish
- Salt and pepper to taste
Make the Sauce:
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic, and cook until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Add carrot, salt, and pinch of chili flakes, and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes, increase heat, and bring to a simmer.
- Rinse stalks of basil. Once tomatoes are simmering, add basil and reduce heat to medium low. Continue to simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The final consistency should be similar to hot cereal. When finished, add additional salt and pepper to taste if necessary. Remove from heat, cover and keep warm.
Make the Chicken:
- Adjust oven rack to about 4 inches from broiler component. Set oven to broil.
- Mix eggs and flour in a large shallow dish until smooth and combined. In another shallow dish, combine breadcrumbs, Parmesan, black pepper and chili flakes.
- One by one, dip chicken breasts in egg/flour mixture, allowing any excess to drip off. Place into breadcrumb mixture, making sure to evenly coat every part of the chicken. Set each finished piece on a large plate.
- Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
- Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until shimmering. Cooking two at a time, add chicken breasts to skillet and cook for 2-2 ½ minutes, or until a golden brown color is achieved. Flip, and cook for an additional 2-2 ½ minutes, being careful not to move the cutlets while they cook. Adjust heat as necessary as to not burn the chicken. Add additional oil to skillet between batches as necessary. When finished, place on paper towel-lined plate to drain excess oil, and transfer to baking sheet.
- Combine Fontina and Provolone cheeses in a bowl. Spread ¼ of cheese mixture evenly over each piece of chicken. Place baking sheet in broiler for about 2-4 minutes, or until cheese is beginning to brown.
- Transfer chicken to a large serving platter. Top each piece with 2-3 tablespoons of tomato sauce. Grate additional Parmesan cheese over the top, and garnish with chopped basil. Serve immediately.