Who says you can’t have a great dinner at home on a work night? For this next installment I’m feeling decidedly Italian. Not ethnically, of course, considering I don’t have an Italian bone in my body. I’m as plain-vanilla English as they come, except for that little smattering of distant Irish ancestry that I use as an excuse to drink lots of Guinness – preserving my heritage, and all that. But when it comes to styles of cuisine, Italian is my hands-down favorite. I’m fascinated by it and irresistibly drawn to it – the culture, the color, the range of ingredients, the vibrant flavors, the passion, and of course, the pasta, which makes a beautiful canvas against which to highlight a wide range of culinary delights. Throw a nice Sangiovese into the mix and we’re cooking with gas, as they say.
As I considered what to make on this Tuesday, I decided to stick with a classic – chicken parmesan with my own personal take on red sauce. Now, there are about as many different ways to make a red sauce as there are people on the planet, maybe more, considering that I have several different favorite recipes myself and I’m sure many others do too. I do not presume to say that mine is the way to make red sauce – heaven forfend! No, this is just one of many ways, and probably inferior to gazillions of others out there, but I happen to like it and I occasionally receive compliments on how stupidly yummy it is (my oversimplified and slightly self-aggrandizing distillation of the comments I receive).
I personally have several versions of red sauce, and the one I make depends on how energetic I’m feeling and how much time I have to make it happen. On a free Saturday afternoon I like to make my “long version” — a variation on a recipe that I picked up when taking classes at a local culinary school, which involves about 5-6 hours of low simmering and reducing. I may share that in a later post. However, when I need to whip something together quickly on a Tuesday night I’m probably going to us this “short form” recipe, which takes about an hour, maybe a little more with total prep time.
I’m giving fair warning to all the purists out there, you’re probably going to cringe when I suggest using canned tomato products instead of fresh plum tomatoes, but trust me, you can get a great result even with my heretical method. Remember — Tuesday night after work. The only caveat to that is that you need to be sure to use genuine San Marzano tomatoes as your starting point. There are several readily available brands such as Cento or Delallo, which have some modest variations in their flavor characteristics, but as long as the can has the DOP seal you can feel confident that you are getting a quality product since San Marzano is generally recognized as the world’s premier tomato growing region.
Interestingly, I have been making this sauce for years but this is the first time I have ever written down the recipe, so I hope I get it right. To make this dish you’ll need two key pieces of equipment – a large straight-sided skillet about 3” deep, and a food mill. Without further ado, here is your ingredient list:
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, small dice
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 carrot, small dice
- 1 celery stalk, small dice
- 1 can (28 oz) whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp Kosher salt
- 1-2 tsp sugar (depending on taste)
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
- ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
- Fresh cracked pepper (to taste)
The inclusion of sugar and cinnamon is my own personal preference, something I learned from my grandmother, as I like that little bit of sweetness and the softened acidity that the sugar promotes, so don’t feel constrained by that if your taste tends toward something a bit zestier. Whatever floats your proverbial boat.
Heat the oil in the skillet on medium and sweat the onions, garlic, carrot and celery for a few minutes until the onions become translucent – don’t caramelize them. Add the tomatoes and use the back of a fork to break them up into smaller pieces. Don’t worry if there are chunks because we’re going to mill the sauce later. Same thing with your garlic – if you don’t get that fine mince cut, no worries because when it comes to knife work the food mill covers a multitude of sins. Next stir in the tomato paste and dried herbs, followed by the bay leaf, salt, sugar and cinnamon. Bring your sauce to a simmer and let it cook for about 30 minutes to blend the flavors, stirring every few minutes. Adjust the seasonings to suit your own personal taste. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf at the end of your cook time. Here’s a picture of the sauce when it’s done simmering.
The next step is to run your sauce through a food mill, preferably on a coarse blade, because if you go too fine you’ll get tomato juice instead of sauce. Also, the coarser blade leaves a beautiful toothy texture to the sauce. You’ll probably notice that the onions and maybe the carrots don’t pass through the mill very well. That’s perfectly fine. These were added mainly as mirepoix to infuse some flavor, so they have served their purpose. If you can get some through to add some texture to the sauce, so much the better.
After milling, hold the sauce warm over low heat. At this point you can reduce for a while if needed, but that probably won’t be necessary because the tomato paste serves to “deliquify” and give some structure to the sauce. If your sauce seems a little too thick, give it a splash of that red wine you’re sipping as you cook (or a little chicken stock if you’re a teetotaler). Once you’re satisfied with your consistency, finish the sauce by stirring in the fresh chopped basil and giving a couple turns with the pepper grinder just before you’re ready to serve. If you’re feeling really racy you can swirl in a pat or two of whole butter.
While your sauce is simmering, it’s time to make the chicken and start your well-salted pasta water coming up to a boil. Speaking of pasta, my personal preference for this dish is capellini (a/k/a angel hair) because I want something with a lighter mouthfeel that will complement the chicken without becoming the focal point of the meal. Capellini also has a very short cook time, so you can dunk it quickly when the chicken and sauce are ready to serve. Here is the ingredient list for 4 moderate or 2 large servings of the chicken:
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ¼ tsp pepper
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- ¼ cup grated parmigiano reggiano
- 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 tbsp clarified butter
- ½ cup ricotta
- Fresh basil, chiffonade, for garnish
We’re going to be breading the chicken, so you’ll need to set up your breading dishes: 1. Combine the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow dish for dredging. 2. Eggs are next in a second dish. Beat them like a rental and feel free to blend in a couple tablespoons of milk to thin your egg wash a bit if desired. 3. Combine the bread crumbs, garlic powder, oregano and parmigiano in a third dish.
Place chicken breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them with a meat mallet to an even thickness of about ½ inch. I normally cut each breast into two equal portions, but you don’t need to do that if you want big, manly cuts of chicken on your plate. Dredge each piece of chicken in the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Dip it in the egg wash to coat thoroughly, and then toss it in the bread crumb mixture to cover completely.
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat, and pan-fry the breaded chicken pieces until moderately browned on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked chicken to a baking dish, top each piece with a few spoonfuls of the red sauce and a healthy dollop of ricotta – don’t be shy – and grate on a bit more reggiano for good measure. Place under a high broiler until the cheese just begins to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil, serve with a side of pasta and red sauce, and munch it down with a glass of Chianti and a big happy grin on your face.
There you have it, my own personal spin on chicken parmesan and red sauce. Not the authoritative standard by any means, but hopefully enjoyable enough that you’ll want to make it again to share with the special peeps in your life. If you like it let me know. If not, well, keep it to yourself, okay?
Can’t wait to join you in the kitchen again next time. Until then: Eat well, my friends!