In northern New England, where I live, the fall brings welcome clarity after the muggy hazy days of summer. The air is crystal clear and colors of the changing leaves are brilliant against the sharply blue autumn skies. There is always a day–perhaps two–in the season in which the sky, trees and air reach their peak of beauty, and I always say half-seriously that it’s that single perfect day that makes the long winter to follow worthwhile.
There are plenty of traditional American foods with which to celebrate autumn, cold weather, the harvest, and the oncoming holidays. But when you’ve had enough of apples, corn, squash, and cider, a hearty Italian-style recipe provides a welcome break while still fitting the prescriptives of the season.
Chicken Parmesan is an excellent dish for serving to a crowd. You can serve it (as I prefer to) accompanied by pasta generously dressed in best-quality olive oil, minced raw garlic, minced parsley or basil, and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. A large green salad or a side dish of roasted broccoli rabe will leave nothing to be desired except simple hors d’oeuvres and a plain or fancy dessert, depending on your inclinations.
Here are a few hints to make the preparation so easy you can throw a dinner party or large family gathering on short notice. Prepare the tomato sauce ahead of time and freeze it; it will keep for many months. Also prepare the bread crumb and cheese coating by combining the ingredients and freezing in a large sealed freezer bag.
The hardest part of preparation is preparing the chicken, which should be gently flattened. To do this, place a chicken cutlet on a stable work surface and top with a gallon-sized sealable plastic bag. Using a kitchen mallet, gently pound the chicken until even and flat. An alternative to this method is to halve the chicken cutlet horizontally to make two thin slices. Very large pieces can be cut crosswise into smaller ones; having a variety of sizes will help later on when arranging the cooked chicken in a baking dish.
The flattened chicken can also be frozen ahead of time. Layer the cutlets on freezer wrap, separating each layer with more wrap. Place in a freezer bag, making sure to squeeze out all air, and freeze. If properly wrapped, it should keep its quality for up to six months.
As in spring, the autumn is a season when our house and landscaping need a lot of attention. The garden and yard have their annual fall clean-up, the house gets battened down for the coming New Hampshire winter. Small leaks of air or water can, when the temperatures drop, become big problems. Sometimes as a thank-you to the patient and good-natured people we hire to help tackle these challenges, I send them home with a dish of Chicken Parm, always greeted with pleasure. The last recipient told me the next day, “That was the best thing I have ever eaten in my life. The best!” and later, as he was driving away, he put down his car window, raised his hand in salute, and shouted out, “Chicken Parm!!”
Heavily adapted from 365 Ways to Cook Chicken, a most excellent and under-appreciated book by Cheryl Sedaker (HarperCollins)
For the tomato sauce:
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Two 794 gram (28-ounce) cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained
- One 170 gram (6-ounce) can tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
For the crumb coating:
- 230 grams (2 cups) Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, or as needed
- 44 grams (1/2 cup) finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other freshly grated Parmesan cheese
For the chicken:
- 8 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
For finishing and baking:
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- Olive oil, as needed for frying
- .45 kg (1 pound) fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1. For the tomato sauce: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, and sauté the onions and garlic until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, sugar, and oregano. Using two knives, cut up the tomatoes while they are in the pan. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid in the pan is reduced by half, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside, or allow to cool and freeze in a covered container for up to 6 months.
2. For the crumb coating: In a wide bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and cheese. Mix well and set aside. May be covered and frozen for up to 6 months.
3. For the chicken: Place a chicken breast on a sturdy work surface, and cover with a large plastic bag. Pound with a kitchen mallet until the breast is evenly flattened to about 1/3-inch thick. Set aside and repeat with remaining chicken. If desired, the flattened chicken may be cut crosswise into smaller pieces. The chicken may be layered between sheets of freezer paper, wrapped airtight, and frozen for up to 6 months.
4. For finishing and baking: Preheat oven to 177 degrees C. (350 degrees F.). In a large skillet over medium heat, add enough oil to film the bottom of the pan. Set aside a wide bowl holding the beaten eggs and another wide bowl with the breadcrumb mixture.
5. Dip each flattened breast into the egg and then into the breadcrumbs. Place in the skillet and cook, turning once, until well-browned on both sides. Place in a single layer, packed closely together, in one or more shallow baking dishes.
6. Pour tomato sauce generously over the chicken but not completely covering it; if there is any left over, reserve it for another use. Top with sliced mozzarella. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly and beginning to brown, about 20 minutes. If desired, serve with spaghetti tossed with minced garlic, olive oil, and parsley or basil.