I have been obsessed with Italian food lately. Well, not real Italian, but Italian-American, the kind of Italian you’ll find at spaghetti houses across the Midwest.
There was a place in my hometown called Chef’s that takes slightly overcooked spaghetti, tosses it with marinara and then dumps heavy doses of Parmesan cheese on top. The entire plate is stuck under a broiler until the cheese is melted and mostly golden, though invariably at least part of the top ends up a little burned.
That’s the kind of Italian I’m talking about. It’s not perfect, it’s not even close to authentic, but it’s unspeakably comforting and good, in its own way.
The beauty of Italian-inspired cuisine is that just because something is not exactly authentic does not mean it’s going to be bad. In fact, knowing that a recipe is already inauthentic can give you a certain amount of flexibility to experiment. A bunch of kale and some leftover sausage—as well as a partial box of lasagna noodles—inspired last night’s dinner—mushroom-kale-sausage lasagna rolls baked with Parmesan on top in a nod to Chef’s. Authentic it was not, but it was delicious.
My real pride and joy, however, has been my Chicken Parmesan.
I use boneless, skinless chicken thighs pounded to 1/4-inch thickness, dredged in two layers of breadcrumbs and egg. Baked or fried, the chicken is finished with a dollop of tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, baked in a hot oven until the cheese is golden.
If I need more substance, I serve it on a bed of pasta, and I always serve it with a spinach salad, dressed in just the juice of half a lemon, a little lemon zest, a tablespoon or so of olive oil and four cloves of minced garlic. A little green on the plate always makes the rest of the meal feel healthier.
Easy, cheap and comforting, it’s the perfect meal for that snowy day in between paychecks. While I make my own sauce and breadcrumbs because I’m an overachiever, you can easily use pre-made ingredients and throw the whole thing together with a minimum of effort and in less than 30 minutes.
Feel free to play with this recipe—you can use chicken breasts if you like, your own sauce recipe or do just one layer of breadcrumbs.
I would not recommend using a chunky tomato sauce, as smooth spreads on the chicken better—and looks better, too. Just use plain old marinara, like the kind Chef’s would, and any fans of pseudo-Italian cuisine will think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Serves 2 to 3, depending on how hungry everyone is
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 cup bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup marinara sauce
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spray a large baking sheet lightly with cooking spray or cover with foil. Pound out chicken thighs to a 1/4 inch thickness with a meat tenderizer or heavy rolling pin. Watch the dog scurry for cover as you take out the day’s stress on the chicken thighs. Set aside.
Crack eggs into a medium bowl. Whisk with salt and pepper (and what the heck, maybe a little garlic powder). Dredge the pounded chicken thighs in egg, then breadcrumbs, then egg and then breadcrumbs again for a thick crust. Make sure all parts of the thigh are covered.
If you’re baking, place the thighs on the baking sheet and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Turn chicken over and bake for another 5 minutes. If you’re frying, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Fry chicken over medium heat until golden and crispy on each side and until there is no pink in the center of the thickest part, roughly 10 minutes. Don’t worry about testing it—the sauce and cheese will cover your “test cut.” Place chicken on the prepared baking sheet.
Once chicken is cooked, spread about a tablespoon of sauce over each piece of chicken. Top each with Parmesan cheese. Bake for 5 minutes or until the cheese is golden. Serve with a giant salad and over pasta, if desired. Fight with your dinner guest over the odd piece of chicken or just wait until the dog steals it off of the counter.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org