A friend was asking the other day about the tenderest chicken breast he had ever had. Well, after some probing questions, we figured out that he had enjoyed a dish of scallopine di pollo, chicken scallopini. It’s not actually a particularly common dish in Italy, where scaloppine are far more likely to be made from veal or turkey, but, of course, it’s enormously popular here in America. And for good reason—it’s one of the nicest ways to prepare chicken breast. Done right, the result is moist and flavorful, even with your average supermarket bird. In any event, here’s a recipe for scallopine di pollo with a lemon and caper sauce, which is also known as a piccata in Italian.
For each person:
- 1 chicken breast, sliced in half horizontally
- Salt and pepper
- Butter or olive oil, or a mixture of both
For finishing the dish:
- White wine
- The juice of one lemon, freshly squeezed
- A few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
- A handful of capers
- A nob of butter
You begin by slicing chicken breasts horizontally, so that you wind up with two fillets or ‘scallops’ per breast of roughly equal size but half the thickness of the original breast. Then flatten the breast out even further by pounding with a meat pounder. (If you don’t have one, no problem–the back of a heavy skillet or saucepan will do. But in either case, cover the chicken breast with foil or wax paper so that the pounder or pan doesn’t stick to the meat.)
Then lightly flour the scallops and fry them in hot butter and oil. Remove them from the skillet as soon as they stiffen up and lose their ‘give’, and deglaze the pan with a bit of white wine. Let the wine reduce, then add freshly squeezed lemon juice, chopped parsley, capers and salt to taste.
Return the scallops to the pan and allow them to absorb the flavor of this sauce for just 30 seconds or so before placing them on a serving platter. Then take the sauce remaining in the skillet off the heat and swirl in a dab of butter until the whole is ‘creamy’, pour over the scallops, and serve immediately.
Make sure your flame is nice and high. Unlike chicken cutlets, scallopine should not be ‘golden brown’ all over—you will have surely overcooked it in that case—but a bit of brown around the edges gives it a nice depth of flavor. It also ensures that you will have a fond that will lend your sauce extra flavor as well. (Fond is the French term for all those brown scraps that cling to the bottom of the pan when you shallow-fry or saute something. As far as I know, there is no English word for it.) To get a good fond, make sure not use a non-stick skillet. When you add the wine, you scrape up the brown particules, which will emusify into the wine—this is called ‘de-glazing’ the pan.
Finally, it is also important to reduce the sauce to the ‘right’ consistency, just thick enough to coat the scallops nicely, but not so thick that the thing becomes stodgy. If you skip this step the sauce, while very tasty, will be too thin and will not coat the chicken properly.
By the way, the flattening of the breasts serves two purposes: First, you increase the sauce to meat ratio. Chicken breast (like veal) has a rather neutral flavor, which acts more as a foil to the sauce. So the lower the meat/sauce ratio, the more flavorful the dish. Second, the flattening breaks up the fibers a bit, thus tenderizing the meat.
Scallopine is one of those almost infinitely variable dishes that typify Italian cooking. Using chicken, in fact, is itself a variation, as classic scallopine are made with veal. Turkey scallopine are a very common variation is Italy (as mentioned, much more common than chicken) as is the use of pork loin, which is quite similar to veal in taste and texture, but much less expensive. But the real variety comes from the multitude of sauces. Perhaps the most common scalloppine dish is made with Marsala wine. Scallopine are also made with tomato sauce, balsamic vinegar, cream and mushrooms, olives, zucchine… you name it. Jim told me that he had a cream sauce, which I would make by adding some chopped shallot and parsley, then deglazing with Marsala or madeira, and then adding cream and reducing. Not matter which version you try, the basic procedure is the same: fry the scallops in oil and butter (or one of the two, depending on the sauce), remove when done, use the fat and fond left in the pan as a base for making your sauce, and when the sauce is done, add back the scallops for a moment to reheat and absorb some of the flavor of the sauce. Et voila!
The classic Roman form of scallopine is the scrumptious saltimbocca, which means ‘jump in your mouth’ because it’s so good that you’ll be tempted to wolf it down. It is made with prosciutto and sage.
If you bread and fry your scallopine without a sauce, you have a milanese or, in Austria, a Wienerschnitzel, or in the US, a chicken cutlet. (They’re delicious with just salt and lemon juice sprinkled on top, but my favorite way to eat them in the summer months is with a tomato salad (made without vinegar or lemon) served on top.
And finally, you can use scallopine to roll up some stuffing, in which case you call them involtini. Like the sauces, practically the only limitation on the stuffings is your own imagination. But some of the most common are bread crumbs and sage, cheese and prosciutto (sometimes called involtini alla bolognese), cheese and ham, sauteed mushrooms and artichokes.