perfecting the chicken parm

Ever since Eric and I started dating, he has been a fan of the chicken parm. In whatever neighborhood he has resided, he has managed to seek out and become a loyal customer of the local sub shop, where his staple order is the chicken parm sub. Even today, when he commutes between work and his graduate school classes, he stops by Armando's Pizza in Cambridge, where he claims they have a perfectly crafted version.

I decided it was time for me to learn how to cook chicken parm (although I don't assume I will ever replace the sub shop staple). I started with some research.

It turns out that what seems to be a traditional Italian dish, Chicken Parmigiana, is in fact an American creation. It is commonly breaded chicken breast topped with tomato sauce and a combination of white melting cheeses such as mozzarella, parmesan or provolone. The chicken is served over pasta in restaurants, or on a hoagie roll in fast food establishments. It is thought to be based on the Italian Melanzane alla Parmigiana, which doesn't feature chicken at all but rather breaded slices of eggplant. Chicken appeared in the dish when Italian immigrants brought the concept to the United States where chicken cutlets were cheap and readily available.

In my attempt to prepare an easy yet flavorful and crispy chicken breast, I focused on the steps prior to cooking. Several recipes called out the importance of a brine on the chicken, which helps to seal in flavor and prevents the chicken from drying out while cooking. I used buttermilk, seasoned with a mixture of dried herbs. The chicken doesn't need to brine for long; an hour or so does the trick.

When ready to cook, you have a couple options. You can dredge the chicken in the traditional flour, egg mixture, and breadcrumbs, and then fry - or you can bake on a wire rack in the oven. Both techniques yield a very crispy exterior, but for the purposes of remaining traditional, I opted for pan-frying.

Finally, when finishing the dish in the oven, many recipes call for pouring the red sauce over the chicken. Having just fried the chicken to crispy perfection, it seemed counterintuitive to me to pour sauce on top of the chicken. I feared soggy chicken. Instead, I recommend that you pour the sauce into a shallow baking dish, then place the chicken on top, followed by cubes of mozzarella and shredded Parmesan. This arrangement allows the cheese to melt to gooey perfection over the crispy chicken, but prevents the entire chicken breast from drowning in tomato.

Once the cheese is melted, you can serve it up over linguine or even Parmesan risotto if you want to be a bit more unique. Garnish with fresh basil and extra sauce on the side. There you have a colorful, crispy, delicious dish that fills the belly and warms the heart. While it isn't traditional Italian, it sure satisfies like an Italian meal. At least I gave Eric an excuse to skip the sub shop tonight...