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08/19/2015

~ For the Times When Ya Just Gotta Have Piccata ~

IMG_1625Lemon and Pepper Seasoning has been on my spice rack for as long as I've had my spice rack.

IMG_1526The brand I use is a tasty blend of black pepper, sea salt, sugar, dehydrated lemon peel, garlic, onion and citric acid (which gives it its signature tang and "pop").  

I'm certain I could mix up my own blend, but, I like the stuff I use too much to bother.  It's a great seasoning for cooked or steamed vegetables -- I particularly like it tossed into broccoli, cauliflower or Summer squash. It's excellent judiciously incorporated into mild-flavored protein dishes too -- my favorites being chicken breasts, crab legs, shrimp, scallops, lobster and even tofu.  The day I decided to incorporate Lemon and Pepper Seasoning into my chicken piccata changed my recipe forever.

IMG_1563Piccata (pih-KAH-tuh) is an Italian-American dish, and, "piccata" (which means "larded") refers to a boneless cutlet or escalope (eh-SKAL-ohp), which is a flat, thinly-sliced, sometimes-pounded piece of meat that cooks, in some form of fat.  Depending upon the thickness, it cooks in a matter of seconds or minutes.  The dish originated in the USA sometime in the 1930's, and, it was originally/classically prepared with veal, which during that period in history, was much cheaper than chicken -- imagine that.  

While no search I've conducted reveals an inventor, it's safe to assume he or she was most likely Sicilian, because the piquantly-flavored dish contains tart and zesty ingredients commonly used in Sicialian-style cuisine.  While every cook prepares piccata a bit differently, piccata implies: Meat dredged in seasoned flour, quickly sauteed and served drizzled with a tart, white-wine and butter pan-sauce made with the addition of lemon juice and capers.  The finished dish is garnished with a bit of minced parsley.  For the same reason we Americans like our spaghetti served with meatballs as one course, piccata is usually served with pasta, polenta or rice.

IMG_1616When did classic veal piccata transition to chicken piccata?

IMG_9426Veal piccata is what I grew up watching adults eat in Italian-American restaurants -- and, by the time I was a teenager, my palate had learned to love every lemon-y, caper-y, pepper-y butter-y bite. Veal piccata is one of the first fancy-schmancy, cheffy "flash-in-the-pan" dinners I entertained guests with in the latter 1970's and '80's -- and I made it in an electric skillet!  

IMG_9428Then, in the 1990's, we foodies were told, by the powers-to-be, to cut back on eggs and red meat.  I had never encountered a boneless, skinless chicken breast prior to that, which is when they began mass-marketing them across America. The boneless, skinless chicken breast revolution had begun.  They began replacing fat, juicy chops IMG_9453and steaks everywhere.  I refer to this as America's "rubber-chicken dinner" period.  Piccata, which was an easy target, became a victim.

While the boneless, skinless chicken breast replaced the veal cutlet or escalope with ease, I was never quite satisfied with it.  Even when butterflied and/or pounded, I've always found the boneless, skinless breast to be a compromise in this dish.  Unlike naturally tender IMG_9595veal, chicken needs to be cooked to a safe 165 degree temperature*, which no matter how you slice or tenderize it, dries it out.  My solution was to use the naturally tender chicken breast tenderloin to make piccata.  Once I 'switched', I actually liked the dish better prepared with thinly but lightly-pounded chicken tenders (chicken paillards) than my original and classic veal piccata.

* Note:  In the case of piccata, the pounded chicken breast tenderloins should be slightly-firm to the touch and slightly-pink in the center when you are removing them from the skillet.  An internal temperature of about 155-158 degrees is fine (actually perfect).  Once removed from the skillet and covered, carry-over heat will continue cooking them to the proper temperature.

IMG_5094A bit about paillard (PI-yahrd):  This French word means "to pound", and, references a lightly-pounded portion-sized slice or medallion of meat, poultry or seafood that gets quickly sauteed.  A paillard is not smashed to smithereens.  Pounding should make it wider and thinner, with the point being to pound it in a manner that makes it even in thickness --  to break down the fibers, to tenderize it, and, to make it cook evenly.  It's usually done with a flat-sided meat mallet, not a sharp, pyramid-toothed gadget guaranteed to pulverize the subject-at-hand.  To those who smack away using the back of a heavy skillet, while your bravado is amusing, you can't concentrate the necessary force directly on the places that need it to do a truly expert job.

Are you ready to see how easy this 25-minute meal is to make?

IMG_15328  large boneless, skinless chicken breast tenderloins (Note: This is approximately equivalent to 2, boneless, skinless, chicken breast halves that have been butterflied, to form 4 pieces.)

~ Step 1.  Place the tenderloins between two large layers of plastic IMG_1537wrap and lightly pound with the flat side of a meat mallet to a thickness between 1/8" and 1/4".

~ Step 2.  Lightly season the tops of the pounded tenderloins with:

Lemon and Pepper Seasoning

Wondra Quick-Mixing flour for IMG_1540Sauce and Gravy, or, ordinary all-purpose flour 

~ Step 3.  Set the tenderloins aside for about 10 minutes while readying the following:

4  tablespoons salted butter

1/4  cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

6  tablespoons chicken stock*

6  tablespoons white wine*

*Note:  All stock (3/4 cup) or all wine (3/4 cup) may be used in place of a combination of both.

IMG_15421/4  cup drained nonpareil capers

1/4  cup minced, fresh parsley

IMG_4955~ Step 4.  In the bottom of an electric skillet*, melt IMG_4982the butter into the olive oil over low heat.  When melted:

Note:  I use my 16" x 12" x 3" electric skillet to make this dish. It's got the surface area to cook eight paillards at once and regulates the heat so they saute properly. Once the sauce is prepared if the paillards are returned to the pan, it will keep the dish warm until serving time too.

IMG_1545 IMG_1547 IMG_1557 IMG_1560~Step 5.  Add paillards to skillet, seasoned sides down.  Sprinkle Lemon and Pepper Seasoning and flour over second sides.  Adjust heat to gently saute at about 250 degrees (medium-high on the stovetop), until barely-browned and just cooked through, 2 1/2-3 minutes per side.

IMG_1567Step 6.  Turn the electric skillet off.  Transfer the cooked paillards to a plate (allowing all of the flavorful juices to remain in skillet), cover the paillards with aluminum foil, to keep warm, and set aside while preparing the piccata sauce according to the following directions:

IMG_1569 IMG_1576~ Step 7. Return pan drippings in skillet to 250 degrees. Add the lemon juice, wine, stock and capers.  Adjust heat to simmer until sauce is reduced by about one-third.  This will only take about 1 1/2 minutes.  Turn the heat off and stir in 2 additional tablespoons of cold salted butter and stir.

As butter melts the sauce will quickly thicken.  No time to waste.  It's time to plate each portion, drizzle w/sauce & serve ASAP!

IMG_1582Sometimes ya just gotta piccata!!!

IMG_1644For the Times When Ya Just Gotta Have Piccata:  Recipe yields 4 servings.

Special Equipment List:  plastic wrap; flat-sided meat mallet; cutting board; chef's knife; electric skillet; fork; spatula 

IMG_5245Cook's Note:  For another similarly-prepared, family-friendly main-dish, which cooks up in almost the same amount of time, check out my recipe for ~ Tender Chicken Paillards with Mushroom Sauce, or: Southern Smothered Chicken with Mushroom Gravy ~ in Categories 3, 19 or 20.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015) 

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