It’s become a tradition on this blog to dedicate a post every Columbus Day to Italian-American dishes like the iconic “Sunday Sauce” or the San Franciscan fish stew Cioppino. This year, we present Chicken Parmesan. While Sunday Sauce and Cioppino remain pretty much staples of the Italian-American community, it’s hard to think of an Italian-American dish, other than pizza or perhaps spaghetti and meatballs, that has become more of a fixture on the tables of Americans of all stripes than this one.
Many Americans think this dish is “Italian”, but although it has Italian roots, it is entirely American. The flavorings and techniques of the original dish, parmigiana di melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan) were adapted by Italian immigrants for veal instead of eggplant and, in more recent years, veal has given way to that quintessential modern American meat, chicken breast.
This transformation is, in many ways, typical of the changes in the diet of the Italian diaspora in America, in particular the way in which the community embraced meat. The traditional diet of poor southern Italians—who made up the vast majority of immigrants to the US—was largely vegetable based. (Think of last week’s post on scarola aglio olio.) In the old country, meat was a special treat reserved for Sundays and holidays, but the New World brought work and income enough to indulge several times a week, if not every day. The ‘native’ cookery was mostly meat-based, and the consumption of meat was, besides a way to delight in their new-found prosperity, a way for Italian immigrants to integrate into the larger culture. And although we now know better, at the time meat was considered a much healthier, more ‘nutritious’ option than vegetables.
In any event, on to the dish. You proceed very much as if you were making eggplant parmesan, only you substitute chicken breasts, pounded thin, for the eggplant slices. You also need to make some adjustments to account for the particular ways in which chicken breast behaves: The chicken breasts are placed side by side, or just slightly overlapping, since they are served whole, and the sauce is fully cooked and rather thick, as the dish spends only 5-10 minutes in the oven, just enough to melt the cheese and warm everything through.
Ingredients (serves 2 or 4 persons)
4 chicken breasts, pounded thin
4 eggs, beaten and seasoned with salt
One batch of a simple, southern-style tomato sauce, such as a marinara or a pummarola
(sauces #2 or #3 in the post Tomato Sauce 101
A ball of fresh mozzarella, sliced or shredded
Heat a large skillet with enough olive oil to come about 1 cm/1/2 inch up the edge until the oil is quite hot. Take the chicken breasts, one by one, flour them lightly and then dip them in the seasoned egg. Then place them gingerly into the skillet. Fry them over a lively flame until they are golden brown on both sides. As they are done, drain them on paper towels. (NB: Don’t worry about cooking them fully through, as the chicken will cook some more in the oven.)
Arrange the fried chicken breasts in a baking dish, either side by side or (as pictured below) slightly overlapping like roof tiles.
Nap the chicken breasts with the tomato sauce, making sure to cover them completely. Grate a generous amount of parmesan cheese over the top, then top with the mozzarella. Sprinkle the whole thing with salt and drizzle over some olive oil. Now you’re ready to bake. (NB: The dish can be made ahead up to this point.)
Pop the baking dish into a hot (200C/400F) oven (use the convection function if you have one) for about 5-10 minutes, until the mozzarella is fully melted and the sauce is bubbling away.
Remove from the oven, allow the dish to cool for about 5 minutes, and serve.
NOTES: Aficionados of chicken parmesan will notice that I’ve deviated from the typical recipe, which calls for breading the chicken breasts after they’ve been dipped in the flour and egg. I wanted to stay closer to the original Italian technique and, besides, I simply don’t like the flavor of breaded foods in tomato sauce. Just doesn’t taste ‘right’ to me. In this country you will find eggplant parmesan made with breaded eggplant slices as well, which is no doubt a case of ‘reverse engineering’ and—as far as I’m concerned—an abomination.