Chicken Parmesan (Pollo alla Parmigiana)

Ah, just when you thought this might be a Tex-Mex blog, I packed up and took a trip to Italy.  Chicken Parmesan is actually more American than Italian.  Italian immigrants created this dish but it was inspired by classic Italian dishes, which sometimes included breaded eggplant and sliced ham…sometimes with sauce, sometimes not.  As with so many recipes, I admire different interpretations.  Each variation exists for a reason, whether it is based on taste preference or the availability of ingredients.  Make every meal one that you will enjoy.  If you fall in love with a meal, others will follow.

This dish is simple to make but, admittedly, difficult to make with verve. 

The secret ingredient, this time around, is homemade tomato sauce.  Summer is here and I am surrounded by buckets of fresh tomatoes.  My lovely wife has already sliced many of those tomatoes and put them in them in a dehydrator to make “sun dried tomatoes”.  Sun dried tomatoes are an absolute joy!  They are intensely sweet and are full of concentrated tomato goodness!   They can be sealed in plastic bags and frozen for months.  When they are pulled out of the freezer, they will still seem just as vibrant as the day that they were prepared.  If you want to soften them, just soak them in water for 20 to 30 minutes. They can be used in salads or added to soup stock.  One of the best ways to use them is with pasta.  Prepare any pasta you like and add sun dried tomatoes, mushrooms and basil and you won’t be disappointed.  So simple…so elegant!  Whatever you do, don’t let your ripe tomatoes go to waste!

But, while I had fresh tomatoes on hand, I wanted to create a delicious foundation for an American-Italian classic… Parmigiana di Pollo, or Chicken Parmesan.  Sautéed zucchini accompanies the Chicken Parmesan, shown here…

Ingredients for the sauce:

2 gallons whole, ripe tomatoes

6 Tbs fresh basil, chopped fine

6 garlic cloves, crushed

2 Tbs dried onion flake

2 tsp fresh thyme

2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced

½ tsp crushed black pepper

Directions for the sauce:

I picked enough tomatoes to fill two gallon buckets.  After washing them, I cut the tops off and scooped out the seeds and much of the juice with my fingers.  I cut the tomatoes into one inch pieces and put them in a large pot.  I set the stove to the lowest setting and let them simmer for about five hours, stirring every half hour, or so.  Keeping the heat low reduces the chance of burning the tomatoes.  You really don’t want the sauce to have a burnt flavor!  I could have set the stove to medium heat, to reduce the cooking time, but that would have required me to stand at the stove, stirring and stirring, to avoid charring them.  Patience and laziness are a virtue, sometimes.

I allowed the tomatoes to reduce down to about ½ gallon of chunky sauce.  I added the basil, garlic, dried onion flakes, thyme, rosemary and black pepper and then I poured the sauce into a blender.  I pureed the reduction and poured it back into the pot.  In case you are wondering, I didn’t add sugar.   Since I used ripe tomatoes, the sauce was already sweet enough.  I say, let the tomato speak for itself!  Or, in my feeble attempt at Latin phrasing, “res lycopersicum loquitur”!

I reduced the sauce until it was nearly  a paste, which took about ½ hour.  I wound up with about one quart of sauce.  Perfect for a serving of four to six people.

Ingredients for the rest of the dish:

4 to 6 medium sized chicken breasts – or about 1 ½ to 2 lbs.

 (Note: in the good ol’ days a whole chicken breast was defined to be the two halves that were still connected.  For this recipe, I am using the modern definition, which means two or three whole chicken breasts, divided in half.  (Sound confusing?…well, I suppose it is.)

3 Tbs olive oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup bread crumbs

2 eggs (lightly whisked)

1 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese

½ cup grated mozzarella

½ cup fresh, sliced fresh mushrooms (optional)

Directions for preparing the chicken:

Dredge the chicken in flour and knock off the excess flour.  Dip the chicken in egg and then coat with bread crumbs. 

Heat an oven-proof pan on the stove at low to medium heat.  Add the oil and then add the chicken. Turn the chicken every few minutes until each side turns golden brown.   Remove the chicken and add the sauce to the pan.  Lay the chicken on top of sauce and spoon some sauce on top of the chicken.  Top with the mozzarella, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese.  Bake in oven at 350° for about five minutes, or until the cheese has melted.

You may serve the chicken from the pan, which will help to keep the food warm, or remove to a serving platter.  Garnish with fresh Italian parsley, or diced green onion.

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