I used to cook for my co-workers on occasion. Not too often, just often enough so that they didn’t get tired of me bringing something in for the whole crew.
Their favorite seems to be my Chicken Parmesan, although I can’t really take credit for its creation. I told them Friday that I would make it this weekend and bring them a pan, even though I no longer work in that area.
Only I didn’t make just a little. I had to consider my new co-workers, too.
From watching several chefs on television do it, along with Tony Soprano’s wife on that mob show, I think I’ve got it down pat. Or at least a passable version of it.
I promise I won’t do a lot of cooking posts, but if you’d like to give this a try, I’ll convey it as simply as possible.
The one thing to remember about anything you cook is to enjoy doing it. If you’re grumpy about it, the food you make will reflect that attitude. You’ll either forget a prime ingredient, cook it too long or not long enough, or use too much or too little of something important. Just relax and have a good time, give yourself plenty of space, use a lot of spoons tasting stuff, and don’t rush.
For my chicken Parmesan I shop with the idea that I’ll need 1 wedge of Parmesan, 1 log of Mozzarella, 1 can of crushed tomatoes, 1 head of garlic, and 1 pound of pasta noodles for every 2 pounds of boneless/skinless chicken breasts. That seems to be the math that works best. One 2-pound package of chicken will make a good-size family dish with the possibility of leftovers. I would guess that this amount should serve about 8 if the portions were small and there were side dishes to go with it. Otherwise, what I’m about to divulge will only serve about 4 or 5.
You’ll want to have casserole dishes, at least one for every 2 pounds of chicken. You could use an additional smaller pan for those extra pieces of chicken that just won’t fit, or you could use any leftover chicken pieces to feed the most finicky among you who refuses to eat anything red.
You’ll want the kind of baking dishes that are shallow, and at least the size of a cake pan. This dish works best if the chicken is baked in single layers that don’t overlap, so before you go trying to use six pounds of chicken, make sure you have the bake ware to pull that off.
The rest of the ingredients you should have readily available in your kitchen. If you don’t, stock up. You’ll want bread crumbs, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, bay leaves, cayenne, crushed red pepper, parsley, garlic powder, garlic salt, and whatever else you think might go well in this dish. You’ll also want one of those cans of powdered Parmesan that the kids like to put on spaghetti.
You could buy bread crumbs, but it’s almost as easy to just make your own and keep them in the freezer. Remember all those heels that get thrown away? Freeze ‘em. Then every once in a while you can crumb them in your food processor, store them in a gallon size freezer bag, and every time you need fresh bread crumbs just pull them out of the freezer. Any bread works well. Remnants of leftover white bread, wheat bread, that loaf you brought home from the steak house, biscuits, bagels, that partial sleeve of crackers that haven’t been touched in a while – whatever. As long as the bread or crackers aren’t sweet and don’t have strong flavors like Rye or Rosemary, you can use these crumbs in just about anything.
The sauce is simple, and you’ll want to put it on to simmer while the chicken is frying. So mince up two cloves of garlic and sauté them for just a few seconds in about a tablespoon or so of olive oil and then add a can of crushed tomatoes. Add salt to taste. That’s it. Cover it up and let it stew while everything else is happening.
In a clean gallon-size zippy bag, put about 2 cups of the fresh bread crumbs for every 2 pounds of chicken you will be making. Add some amount of each of the spices listed above, including that powdered Parmesan the kids like. I recommend starting with about a tablespoon of everything (except the cayenne and crushed red pepper – only use about a ¼ teaspoon), and then the next time you make it you can adjust accordingly. Shake the bag to combine everything.
You could use prepackaged, seasoned bread crumbs if you want, but you really never know what’s in that can. For all I know it contains dried carpet fiber, but who’s checking?
I hope it goes without saying that you should wash your hands first and periodically thereafter, especially after each time you handle raw meat. If you needed that little bit of advice, you may want to skip down to the next post in your reader as cooking is not something you’ll want to do very often, and something you’ll never want to do for other people.
Wash your chicken breasts in cold water.
Fillet your chicken with a very sharp knife and add the pieces to the bag. It doesn’t matter how many pieces you get so much as it matters how thick the pieces are. You’ll want thin pieces. I can usually get three to four thin fillets out of each piece of breast meat and a few of something resembling the size of chicken tenders. Even the small bits that resemble nuggets fry well and fill up space in the pan, so use those, too.
It won’t do to just shake the bag and expect the chicken to receive a nice coating. These are crumbs, not flour, so you’ll want to press them onto the chicken pieces.
Ideally, you’ll want to heat a combination of olive oil and vegetable oil in a large skillet, about a quarter to a half an inch deep with oil, and fry a whole clove of garlic (sliced in half to get the most flavor out of it) between each batch of chicken, adding more of both oils as necessary. Then you’ll want to salt each piece of chicken as it’s frying, both sides. I find it easier to just keep a container of garlic salt and use that to season the chicken while it’s frying. However you prefer is fine.
Layer the chicken into the hot oil. Don’t crowd it. If you can only fit three pieces into the pan without them touching each other, then wait until they’re done to put more in. You just want to brown them lightly on each side. Don’t overcook them – they’ll be in the oven for half an hour later, so don’t worry so much about getting them all the way done as browning them nicely. If the pieces aren’t thick, you should only have to fry them about 2-4 minutes on each side. Thicker pieces should be filleted again, if at all possible, prior to frying to ensure the half hour baking time (later) is sufficient time to cook them through without over-cooking them. Most of them, if they’re thin enough, will be cooked through in the short time it takes to brown them.
As they come out of the pan, layer them in your baking dish, side by side, scrunching them together but not overlapping. You’ll find yourself working them like puzzle pieces to get as many in as you can. That’s fine, too. Just try not to overlap them.
When your chicken is done and in the pan(s), slice up a log of Mozzarella. The thinnest you’ll be able to slice them by hand is still a pretty good slab, and don’t use them sparingly. Cover each piece of chicken, even if some of the chicken requires two pieces or more to completely cover. You don’t want to put the mozzarella down onto the pan in any bare spots, but make sure the chicken is covered.
You probably won’t use the whole log, but it’s perfectly okay if you do. Leftover mozzarella stores well for a while in the refrigerator and can be used in any number of recipes later.
Using a ladle or a large spoon, top each piece of mozzarella with some of the tomato sauce you’ve kept simmering. Evenly distribute this making sure that most of the mozzarella is covered. If you have extra sauce, now you can put it in places to fill up any holes between the chicken pieces. If you don’t have any left, that’s fine too. If you thought that 1 can wasn’t going to be enough for two pounds of chicken and you used 2 cans instead, then plan on making meatloaf or spaghetti later in the week. The tomato sauce will freeze well, too, so you can use it much later for something else.
Or you could just toss it out, depending entirely on your personal level of ‘green’.
Liberally sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan from the wedge I had you buy. You’ll want to use most of this in your dish, reserving some for garnishing later, and refrigerating the rest for use in something else, or sprinkle it on garlic bread to serve with your dish. If you start grating from the pointy end, you’ll use all but the final inch or so of the whole wedge to cover your dish.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake your masterpiece(s) uncovered for 20-30 minutes, or until just before the top looks like it’s going to start browning a little. You don’t want brown, but golden is nice. It’s even better if it doesn’t brown at all.
Now you can get to work on your noodles, and if everything works well, you can eat as soon as the noodles get done. If the chicken gets done sooner than that, it can just rest for a bit on the counter and be patiently awaiting the final touches on your pasta.
I’ve found that thin spaghetti noodles work best for this dish. If you just like some other style, then go for it. Use plenty of water in which to boil the noodles and add salt and both butter and olive oil to the water to provide flavor and to prevent sticking. When done, drain well, add olive oil and butter to the bottom of the hot pan, and return the noodles quickly. Add any measure of the same spices you used in the bread crumbs in whatever quantities you prefer. I recommend that you start with the same measurements as for the bread crumbs and adjust deficiencies in the next batch you make. There is one exception: do not add Parmesan in any form to the noodles. It will try to melt, fail, and just make a sticky mess of your noodles.
Toss to coat well.
To build this mountain of perfection on the dinner plate, start with a small bed of seasoned noodles and top with a piece or two of chicken. Stand back quickly when you hand the plate to someone so you can graciously receive their accolades while still retaining some dignity.
Leftovers re-heat well in the microwave, so it’s easy to put some noodles in small containers and top with chicken pieces. You can even freeze these portions to grab and go on a day when you didn’t have leftovers for your lunch at work. Be careful though. When you re-heat this at work and your co-workers are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, you may find you are suddenly very popular. If this is your goal, then make extra so you can achieve the same effect often.
If you have more noodles left over than you have chicken to accompany it, you can always use them as a basis for an Alfredo sauce tomorrow, which is really good with chicken fried in the same manner as above. Or you could pair it with mild or sweet Italian sausage instead. Or just go ahead and make that spaghetti sauce your kids were screaming for when they found out you’d made something different than what they were used to.
Whatever you do, and regardless of your reasons for doing it, do it simply. And enjoy.