Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Comfort Food

Back in my younger days, when I was just out of college, on occasion I’d stay out a little too late on a school night, necessitating a greasy, comforting lunchtime pick-me-up to get me through the rest of the day. Now that I’m older and much, much more mature (and don’t work in an office anymore), I don’t have so many food-related emergencies. However, I still love the meal that was my go-to during times of trouble, back in the day: Chicken Parmigiana.

Unfortunately, I am picture-less, but last night I decided to do a little off-the-cuff experiment, to see if I could make an easy homemade version of the delicious carry-out meal. The end result didn’t actually have any Parmesan cheese in it, but it sort of tasted like it did. And, oh, was it good. Good enough that Cooper stole the leftovers for lunch today, much to my chagrin.

Not surprisingly, the strength of this dish is all in the ingredients. Buy really good mozzarella and either make or buy amazing sauce, and you will be in business. Because beyond that, it’s just chicken and bread crumbs, some pasta and some spices. But really, what can be bad about that?

I got my mozzarella and sauce from Ceriello’s in the market. The sauce (marinara) is reliably good enough and cheap enough that I have absolutely no incentive to learn to make a great tomato sauce on my own. Maybe one day I’ll feel the need to learn, just to make an honest cook of myself, but that day is not today.

And the mozzarella. I cannot say enough about it. Ceriello doesn’t keep their mozzarella in a refrigerated case, so when I got it home, it was soft and literally dripping with a milky watery liquid. Naturally, I had to test it, just to be sure it was good. And OH MY GOD. It was literally the best mozzarella I’ve ever tasted.

Not only did it melt in my mouth, it melted there with the most beautiful combination of salt and sweetness and creaminess ever. I ate three more pieces (small, ok?) before I wrapped it back up.

Unfortunately, the very pesky and enterprising mouse that lives in our kitchen made me nervous enough to put the cheese in the refrigerator. Three hours later, when I took it out to give Cooper a taste, it was still good, but had lost the intense seawater saltiness that smacked me in the mouth to begin with. Still, he loved it. And loved it even more when it was all melty, on top of breaded chicken in sauce. All night, he couldn’t stop saying, “It’s amazing how good ingredients make a classic so much better.” So much better, I think he means, than what you can order from most local pizza places. Not the highest bar ever, but it's something.

Still, one of my more successful experiments. And a comfort in so many ways.

So here it is: Kit’s Chicken Parmigiana without the Parmigiano (spice amounts are estimated, obvs.):

(serves 2)

1 lb. Spaghetti, linguini or some other type of similar pasta
2 chicken breasts
1 egg
1 ½ c. bread crumbs
1 tbl. garlic powder
2 tbl. Italian seasoning (or a combination of crushed rosemary, thyme, and oregano)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1 16 oz. jar of good (or homemade) marinara sauce
About 1/3 to ½ lb. good mozzarella, cut into six slices (should be about ¼ inch thick each)
Grated parmesan, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put a large pot of water on to boil (for the pasta). Add olive oil to the water and, if desired, salt just before it boils.

Begin to heat a large frying pan over medium heat.

While everything’s heating up, clean chicken. Pound each breast until it is about ¼ inch thick. Place to the side.

In a shallow bowl, beat the egg with a fork until mixed well. In another shallow bowl, combine bread crumbs, garlic powder, Italian spices and salt and pepper to taste. Mix with a fork until well combined.

Once pan is hot, cover bottom of pan with olive oil. Dip both sides of one chicken breast in egg, then in bread crumb mixture, until completely covered. Press bread crumb mixture to chicken to stick. Place in frying pan. Repeat with other breast.

Brown chicken breasts, not quite cooking them through. I cooked them for 2 minutes on each side, then 1 minute again on the first side – but my pans run hot. You might want to adjust for thickness of breasts or pan performance.

By now, your water should be boiling. Cook your pasta according to the directions, and drain when done.

Once the chicken breasts are nicely browned and crispy-looking, place them in a 9x13 baking pan. Cover with ¾ of the sauce, making sure it really covers the chicken, and reserving the last bit to heat and put over pasta. Cover each breast with slices of mozzarella – you want them to be COVERED.

Place the chicken in the oven and bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes. That’ll give you plenty of time to cut some crusty bread, heat up your extra sauce, and make a salad.

Once out of the oven, serve each breast with a nice helping of pasta and sauce, with Parmesan to garnish if you’d like. The chicken should be tender and juicy – not at all stringy or overcooked – though you might need to experiment with timing using your equipment.

Then, bask in the comforting glow of the cheese.

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