Synonymous with the Italian diaspora, chicken parmigiana (or just ‘chicken parm’) is a classic dish containing breaded chicken breast typically topped with tomato sauce, melted mozzarella, and grated parmesan.
Believed to have originated in the northeast United States, created by Italian immigrants, chicken parmigiana is generally considered a play on the classic aubergine parmigiana. Named after the cheese rather than the city of Parma, it’s suggested that the first recipe for what could be recognised as aubergine parmigiana was published in an 1837 Neapolitan cookbook by Ippolito Cavalcanti. The chicken parmigiana is a far more recent adaptation, however, with Italians in America taking advantage of the country’s affordable meat markets rather than relying on inexpensive vegetables back in Italy.
Having become extremely popular during the mid-20th century, chicken parmigiana was a staple in Italian fine dining restaurants in the northeast United States, having become a benchmark of Italian-American cuisine. Today, however, the dish is best known as a comfort food dish, typically served as a main course, occasionally on top of pasta, or scooped into submarine rolls to make simply outstanding sandwiches.
Traditionally breadcrumbs are used, but this chicken parmigiana recipe makes use of either blitzed olive oil crackers or breadsticks, though all-purpose breadcrumbs, fresh bread crumbs or panko also work well. The flattened chicken fillets are dredged in flour, then egg, then whichever breadcrumbs are used, then fried as soon as possible to prevent the coating from becoming soggy: an important foundation to the dish, which needs to retain some of its external crunch due to being topped with a quickly made tomato sauce and smothered with cheese.
For the chicken parmigiana topping, it’s also worth investing in high quality ingredients. With the sauce, for instance, it demands to be cooked quickly, unlike slow-cooked ragùs. As such, the sauce won’t have the same level of sweetness, so using good tinned tomatoes will really pay off. The same goes for the cheese. A relatively low-moisture mozzarella will be your best bet here, to prevent the chicken from becoming soggy and unenjoyable.
- 3 large chicken breasts
- 4 eggs beaten
- 500 g breadcrumbs I like to use blitzed olive oil crackers or breadsticks
- 150 g flour plus more if need be
- 500 g mozzarella
- A generous handful Parmigiana Reggiano
- 1.2 kg tinned tomatoes chopped, or run through a food mill
- 4 garlic cloves finely sliced
- 2 Calabrian chillies finely chopped
- Handful of basil stems finely chopped and leaves ripped
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Neutral cooking oil for frying (such as rapeseed oil)
- Begin by making the tomato sauce. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil into a large, heavy-based saucepan, enough to cover the base. Heat for 30 seconds until shimmering, then add the garlic, chopped basil stalks and Calabrian chilli. Cook over low-medium heat for a minute or two until fragrant, making sure the garlic doesn’t burn. Season with a generous pinch of salt, then add the chopped tomatoes to the pan, plus some torn basil leaves.
- Increase the heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook on low for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Once cooked, leave to cool.
- Prepare the chicken by butterflying the breasts and pounding with a steak tenderiser, between two sheets of cling film. Make the breasts as thin as possible, without breaking.
- Heat a large pan half filled with a neutral frying oil, then set up a breading station by lining up a bowl of flour seasoned with salt and cracked black pepper; the beaten eggs; and the breadcrumbs.
- Using a wet hand/dry hand method, dip the chicken into the seasoned flour to coat, then move to the beaten egg, then finally dip into the breadcrumbs until completely coated. Transfer the breaded chicken slices to a rack while completing the process with the remaining cutlets.
- Once the oil is hot enough for deep frying (test by dropping a breadcrumb in – once it sizzles furiously the oil is ready), place the breaded chicken cutlets into the oil, in batches to avoid overflow, and fry for 5-7 minutes on each side, or until golden. It doesn’t matter if the oil doesn’t cover the chicken. Drain the cooked chicken on a clean rack and cook the remaining pieces in batches.
- When the chicken is cooked, ladle some sauce into the base of an oven-safe pan, then top with the chicken. Spread a little sauce on top of the fried chicken cutlets, making sure some of the crispy breadcrumbs remain exposed. Then top with slices of mozzarella, also making sure some of the breading remains uncovered. Finally scatter with a generous handful of Parmigiano Reggiano, then place under a hot grill for 5 minutes or so, until the cheese has melted and browned. (If you don’t have a grill, cook in the oven, pre-heated to its hottest setting).
- Serve on its own, with pasta, or scooped into submarine rolls.
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