Historically I’ve had a bittersweet relationship with these sorts of Italian American dishes. The classic “red sauce” meals that chain restaurants served in my youth were why I thought I didn’t like Italian food (not liking Italian food is crazy, I know). It wasn’t because I was a child food snob, rather it was because these dishes were so loaded up with cheese, oil, breading, and more cheese, every time I ordered them I felt terrible. Sure, they tasted good, but at what cost?
Italians serve Italian food very differently than how Americans serve Italian food. When I was still riding the wave of study-abroad-pretension, I could not be bothered with traditional, classic, Italian American dishes like the ones I’d had as a child, or the one you see above. But I was wrong, and when I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong (name that movie). Italian American dishes are just that–a unique blend of Italian culture adapted through the ages to suit an American lifestyle. They should be celebrated with as much enthusiasm as, say, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
I was reintroduced to these beloved dishes fairly recently; we didn’t have Chicken Parmesan growing up–we had chicken enchiladas, or sometimes if Aunt Joan was in town, fried chicken and gravy. K loves Chicken Parmesan, though, and I realized that by making these dishes at home, you can control how much stuff goes into the recipe, and thus create a dish that is well balanced and doesn’t make you feel like a cheese bomb after eating. It’s not light–fried chicken rarely is–but by controlling the ingredients used, you can ensure that the only flavor you taste isn’t the melted cheese.
Not that melted cheese is a bad thing.
Let’s get started.
It all starts with the chicken cutlet. We like our cutlets very, very thin, so I bought some chicken cutlets that were already sliced thin, then pounded them even thinner, a little less than 1/2 an inch. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap down on a clean countertop, then put the chicken cutlets on top. Add another sheet of plastic wrap on top, and, using a rolling pin, go to town. Pound the chicken cutlets until they are the same thickness throughout. Or thin-ness, I should say. The one on the left is just right. The one on the right needs some more work.
Once your finished pounding your chicken cutlets, set them aside.
Next, you’ll want to set up your breading station. I used a traditional breading system of flour, eggs, and seasoned bread crumbs, but a lot of people just use egg and breadcrumbs, or even just breadcrumbs.
Set up a wire rack on top of a baking sheet or a sheet of plastic, and working one at a time, coat the chicken cutlets in the flour, then dip them in the egg, and finally coat them well with bread crumbs. Once breaded, place on the wire rack so any excess breading can fall to the baking sheet.
Meanwhile, heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. You’ll also want to have a pot of water going for the pasta, and the world’s easiest tomato sauce simmering away.
Test the oil by dropping a pinch of bread crumbs into it. If they sizzle, the oil is ready. If not, let it heat a little more. Working two at a time, or one depending on the size of your skillet, fry the chicken cutlets.
They’re so thin, they only need a couple of minutes on each side. Just enough so that each side is a deep golden brown.
Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and continue frying until all the cutlets are done.
I made an extra large batch so that we could freeze some cutlets for later, which I would highly recommend. They reheat beautifully and are great on a sub or cut up on top of a salad.
We’re making Classic Chicken Parmesan, though.
Boil your pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside, then add a little bit of sauce so that the noodles don’t stick. Cut up some fresh mozzarella cheese and have that standing by as well.
Line a baking sheet with foil and place a chicken cutlet on top. Top that with a little bit of sauce and a couple slices of fresh mozzarella. Into the oven it goes, at 450 degrees, until the cheese is completely melted and beginning to brown. You may want to finish it under the broiler for a minute or so.
Once the cheese is melted and browned, plate it all up! Plate the chicken cutlet and some pasta with a little bit more sauce on top on the side. Generously sprinkle grated Parmesan over everything.
Alternately, you could plate the chicken over the pasta, but the effect is the same. Tender, crispy chicken, the best sauce you’ll ever taste, and melty cheese, all in perfect balance.
It doesn’t get more classic than this. There’s no crazy ingredients, no twists, no deconstruction–this meal is classic and clean and is all about comfort. You control the ingredients so you control the taste.
And anyway, I think classics are supposed to be homemade. That’s why they’re classics.
Here’s the recipe.
Classic Chicken Parmesan with Spaghetti
- 1 pound thin spaghetti
- 1 recipe of The Easiest Tomato Sauce…Ever
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
- 1 pound chicken cutlets, pounded very thin, a little less than 1/2 an inch thick (place the cutlets in between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound with a rolling pin until they are even and the desired thickness)
- 1 cup flour
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup seasoned panko breadcrumbs (or make your own: panko breadcrumbs, a little salt, a little pepper, a teaspoon of dried oregano, a teaspoon of dried parsley)
- Vegetable oil
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil, set aside. Arrange a wire cooling rack over another baking sheet and set aside.
- Cook spaghetti according to package instructions. Drain and toss with a little tomato sauce so it won’t stick. Set aside.
- Set up your breading station. Flour goes in a shallow dish or plate, eggs in a bowl, and bread crumbs in a shallow dish or plate, in that order. Coat the chicken cutlets on each side with flour, then dip in the egg, then coat well with breadcrumbs. Transfer the breaded cutlets to the wire rack and continue until all the cutlets are breaded.
- Heat about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil in a large cast iron skillet. Heat over medium heat until the oil sizzles when you drop a breadcrumb in. Shallow-fry the breaded cutlets on each side for about 3-4 minutes, or until each side is deeply golden brown. Drain on a paper-towel lined plate and continue working until all cutlets are fried. (Cutlets freeze well if you let them cool completely and store them in a freezer bag. Reheat by thawing in the microwave and crisping them up in a 450 degree oven.)
- Assemble your Chicken Parmesan by placing cutlets on the foil-lined baking sheet. Top with some sauce, then slices of fresh mozzarella. Bake until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. You may need to finish them under the broiler. Plate with pasta, sauce, and the Chicken Parmesan.