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~ Not Your Mama's Chicken Parmigiana a la Melanie ~

IMG_4772It wouldn't be the holiday season in our house without at least one Italian feast. This year Joe has asked me to serve one of his family's favorites on Christmas Day:  chicken parmigiana.  I've been making parmigiana for over thirty years, and I'm going to be honest with you, it wasn't until about twelve years ago that I settled on a recipe that everyone, including me, raves about.  I was my own worst critic because I find/found fault with a lot of traditional versions:  I do not like over-pounded, ordinary bread-crumb crusted, sautéd-in-a-skillet and too-much-sauce versions.   

That said, I married into a family with the last name of Preschutti, therefore: "traditional" equates to "family", which, to them, makes their recipe and method for cooking it "the best".  Any attempts on my part to upset their family "parmigiana ecosystem" were going to have to be really good ones, and it was best to keep said attempts classified until my final creation was done. 

260px-Parmigiano_reggiano_pieceA bit about parmigiana:  "A la parimigiana" is the term used to describe food that has been made or cooked with Parmesan cheese.  For instance, chicken or veal parmigiana are pounded cutlets* (not a scaloppine) that traditionally are dipped in seasoned flour, an egg-milk mixture, then breadcrumbs.  That being said, pork cutlets work nicely too. The coated cutlets are sauteed until just cooked through and golden brown, placed in a baking dish, topped with tomato sauce, grated mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.  The dish is baked like a casserole, until the cheese is melted and it is usually served on top of pasta.  Eggplant parmigiana, which is a great option if your are feeding vegetarians, consists of peeled and sliced eggplant (aubergine) prepared in the same manner.  

* A cutlet is a thin, tender cut of meat pounded to a thickness of  about 1/2".  A scaloppine is an Italian term describing a much thinner scallop of meat that is usually dredged in flour and sautéd very quickly.  The two cannot be used interchangeably in this recipe.

IMG_4767My Unsettling Relationship with Parmigiana

I wanted to love parmigiana, and, for the record, parmigiana is not hard to make.  But, it takes some time, especially if you are feeding more than six people. First you pound your cutlets and organize your "breading assembly line".  Two or three at a time, the coated cutlets must be sautéd, then topped and baked.  Then you clean up "the mess" -- all of the sticky drips on the countertop and the greasy, spattered-up stovetop.  I have never felt that the time and energy I put into this process reaped rewards with the end product.  More often than not, the cutlets emerged from the oven chewy and/or dry with their crispy coating being reduced to a limp, soggy, soaked-in-tomato-sauce, texture.  Was I doing something wrong?  I was convinced not. With high hopes and expectations, I'd experimented with too many versions of parmigiana, and, besides that, I knew/I know how to cook.  I found myself disappointed with them all.  I wanted my Parmigiana to be a mind-altering experience and I was bound and determined to come up with one.

Enter the New Millenium (New Year's Eve, 1999)

6a0120a8551282970b0154383f4a34970cJoe and I don't throw too many New Year's Eve parties, but as the calendar and the clock ticked towards 2000, I found myself getting into the spirit of things.  It is also worth mentioning that our twentieth wedding anniversary was coming up on the 4th, so we decided to invite six or eight couples that Friday evening for a special, but casual, celebration to "party like it's the last day of 1999".  After drinks and appetizers, I wanted to serve a midnight buffet, and I was intent on using chafing dishes, so I could have everything prepared in advance and hot.  I decided on an Italian menu:  "Hail Caesar" Salad w/Lemon 'n Garlic Shrimp, Chicken Parmigiana w/Penne & Marinara, Fettucini Alfredo a la Primavera, and, Mrs. Prizzi's Italian Celebration Cookies. This would also be the night I would unveil my new "ultimate" chicken parmigiana recipe.

Out With the Old, In With the New: 

PICT5231Why in the name of crunchiness would anyone want to continue to use old-fashioned breadcrumbs to make parmigiana if they knew about panko?  They wouldn't.

Meet the first change I made to this classic recipe.  "Panko" is the Japanese word for "bread crumbs", and theirs are considerably crispier and crunchier than our Western ones.  Whats more, they absorb less grease, more flavor and stay crispy a lot longer.  This simple substitution is a game changer.

PICT5240The ties that bind.  After a showdown between the traditional watery egg-milk mixture vs. a trendy beer batter, the beer batter won hands-down.  In fact, it wasn't even a competition.  Who wouldn't want a super-crunchy coating that doesn't fall off or separate from the parmigiana afterwards?  No one.  

My beer batter doesn't use ordinary all-purpose flour either.  I added pancake mix to the new playbook too. Having fun so far?

PICT5244In my humble opinion, God put deep-fryers on this earth for a good reason and I now believe that parmigiana might have been at the top of his list -- 'tis true.

Put away that skillet and enjoy the mess-free ease of how this relatively inexpensive (about $60.00) countertop appliance regulates temperature and perfectly cooks each piece of parmigiana. Who wants a crunchy, crispy, stay-put coating on a succulent, moist and juicy piece of chicken or veal parmigiana?  Of course, we all do.

Who wants a stovetop full of grease spatters and a ton of cleanup?  Not me, but this choice remains yours.

Tenderize the tenderest part of the chicken:

IMG_4676 IMG_4676 IMG_4676For about $14-$15 at any of my local markets, I can purchase a "value pack" of 6-pounds chicken breast tenderloins, It contains approximately 30 tenderloins, which when breaded and deep-fried, are good-sized cutlets -- one or per two person.  Once I get them home, I arrange them side-by-side, on a large cutting board, between two sheets of plastic wrap.  Using the flat-side of a meat mallet, I lightly-pound them, with "lightly" being the key word here -- do not smash them to smithereens.   Start-to-finish, this process takes less than five minutes and renders them fork tender. 

IMG_4757Set up a deep-frying assembly line (left to right):


Chicken tenderloins, prepped as directed above.

One 8" x 8" x 2" dish containing 2 cups dry pancake mix.

One loaf-pan containing 2 1/2 cups pancake mix whisked with 22 ounces beer (Note:  Beer lends wonderful flavor with yeasty undertones to the breading.  That said, if I can't convince you that the heat of the deep-fryer will evaporate all the alcohol, feel free to substitute club soda.)

One 8" x 8" x 2" dish containing 2, 8-ounces boxes panko breadcrumbs.

Deep-fryer w/corn or peanut oil heated to 375° according to manufacturer's specifications.

Misc:  forks, 3-minute timer, wire cooling rack, paper towels, sea salt grinder.

IMG_4709~ Step 1.  When everything is measured and in place, whisk together the pancake mix and beer (or club soda). Set aside for about 5 minutes before starting the frying process. This will give the batter time to thicken a bit, to a drizzly consistency.  If at any point during the frying process (even at the outset) if the batter seems or gets too thick, whisk in a little more beer (or club soda) to maintain a very drizzly consistency.

IMG_4685~ Step 2.  This step is actually optional, so skip it if you like.  When it comes to chicken cutlets, I prefer the texture of my panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs) to be less coarse.  To make that happen:

Place panko in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.  Using a series of 50-60 rapid on-off pulses, process these super-crispy breadcrumbs to finer crumbs.

Fry Baby Fry -- It's all about Fearless Frying:

IMG_4718 IMG_4718 IMG_4718 IMG_4718 IMG_4718~Step 1.  Working in batches of 2 pounded-tenders at a time, dredge each pair in the dry pancake mix to coat it on all sides.  Note:  I fry 2 at a time because that is what fits comfortably in the basket of my fryer without overcrowding it.  Next, move up the assembly line, and, one-at-a-time dip each tender into the batter.  As you lift each one out of the batter, hold it over the bowl for a second or two, to allow the batter to drizzle back into the bowl.  As you batter dip each tender, place it into the dish of panko. Dredge both of the tenders in the panko ASAP.

IMG_4735 IMG_4735Step 2.  One-at-a-time, and with the aid of a fork, carefully lower the pair of breaded tenderss down into the 375° oil and into the fryer basket.  Close the lid and allow tenders to deep-fry for 3 1/2-4 minutes.  Tenders will be a beautiful golden brown and just cooked through.  Do not overcook -- residual heat will continue to cook them.

IMG_4743Step 3.  Open fryer lid and slowly lift basket up and out of deep-fryer. Transfer tenders to a wire rack in a baking pan that has been lined with paper towels.  Tip:  To transfer the tenders, simply tilt the basket onto its side directly over the rack.  Using tongs is a mistake -- an easy way to damage their crust.  Once out of the fryer, immediately sprinkle tenders with freshly ground sea salt and repeat this process until all cutlets are breaded and fried.

Assembling & baking the parmigiana:

IMG_4814For every 2-4 servings:

4  batter-dipped, panko-crusted, deep-fried chicken tenders, warm or at room temperature

1 1/2  cups marinara sauce, preferably homemade, or your favorite store-bought brand

8  ounces deli-style, sliced mozzarella cheese, 8-10 slices

2  tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

a sprinkling of Italian seasoning blend

a sprinkling of red pepper flakes (optional)

12-16-ounces pasta of choice, cooked al dente and lightly-sauced

no-stick cooking spray, for preparing casserole dish

IMG_4819 IMG_4819 IMG_4819 IMG_4819 IMG_4819 IMG_4819~Step 1.  Spray an 8" x 8" x 2" (or appropriately-sized casserole for more tenders) with no-stick cooking spray.  Arrange the deep-fried chicken tenders, slightly overlapping, in the dish.  Fold one slice of deli-mozzarella in half and place one folded-slice between each cutlet.  Top the tenders with the remaining cheese slices.  Sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a sprinkling of Italian seasoning blend and optional red pepper flakes.  Bake on center rack of preheated 350° oven, 12-15 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling.  Remove from oven, portion and serve immediately with lightly-sauced pasta and additional sauce portioned to the side, for dipping or drizzling.

Bake on center rack of 350° oven, 12-15 minutes:

IMG_4851Serve w/your favorite lightly-sauced pasta & stick a fork in it:

IMG_4787Not Your Mama's Chicken Parmigiana a la Melanie:  Recipe yields approximately 30 batter-dipped, pinko-crusted, deep-fried chicken tenders and instructions to freeze tenderss, along with instructions to assemble, bake and serve chicken parmigiana.

Special Equipment List:  plastic wrap; cutting board; flat-sided meat mallet; 2, 8" x 8" x 2" baking dishes; 9" x 4" loaf-type dish; tongs; deep-fryer; wire cooling rack; paper towels

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 7.09.39 PMCook's Note:  In the scheme of things, it is probably worth mentioning that I make sure my marinara sauce is cooked and hot before I start deep-frying the chicken.  I cook, drain and lightly sauce my pasta during the deep-frying process, which, thanks to the convenience of the deep-fryer, is a really easy task to manage.

I also am pleased to tell you this is one of my recipes that appears on on the menu of our  "Happy Valley" restaurant:  Champs Sports Grill.  

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

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011) 


Teresa! I was the same way. For years I could not understand the fascination with parmigiana. For years, I never admitted to anyone how I changed the recipe, for fear of criticism from Italian foodies. Then, when the owner of Champs (a very close friend of mine and real-deal Italian) called and asked if I could find a way to put some "pizzazz in traditional parm", I told him I would show him how I do it on one condition: he promise not to laugh. He saw, he tasted, he sent his chef to my kitchen to watch the process (which is very conducive to restaurant line cooking + the batter holds up all day), and, it is one of his best sellers!

Mel, I've never liked this Italian-American invention, but the beer and pancake mix are intriguing. Then there's panko that gives anything that's fried better taste and texture. Very original.

Hugs to you too Maria. Your friendship and your blog have made my world a kinder, gentler, better tasting place to be. You write from the heart, as I think I do. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too my dear!

I used to make Veal Parmigiana all the time when I first got married....and have lost the recipe.....but, I will keep yours for looks and sounds absolutely fantastic...when I make husband will be soooooooooooooooooo happy! Thank you for sharing this wonderful recipe....
Have a wonderful Christmas....Melanie...

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