Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Difficult Foods: Chicken Picatta

Here's another one of those foods that people often associate with moderately nice Italian restaurants. It's not something you'd generally see at a Fazzoli's, for instance.  Because of that, this sometimes gets lumped into the "fancy" category.  It certainly sounds fancy with its foreign name, but it really isn't.

Have you got some chicken, chicken broth, flour, and lemon juice?  Then you've got everything you need for the basic dish right there.  Sure, there are variations you can put on it.  You can modify anything, but the key ingredients are the chicken and the lemon juice.

But before we start, I have to ask:  how well do you like lemon?  If you don't like it it at all, then this is not for you.  It's very lemony, especially my way.

As a side note:  glazed carrots go really really good with this.  The contrast of the sweet and sour is awesome.  They kind of set each other off and make all the flavors pop.

2 chicken breasts, or about 2 lb of chicken cutlets.
1 shy C chicken broth
1 shy C lemon juice (this can be adjusted to taste, but make sure you wind up with about 2c liquid total)
Garlic (fresh is best, or minced in oil, but powder works of course)
Optional:  capers, green onions, shredded carrots, lemon slices, pretty much whatever your heart desires in *small* quantities, and don't over do it.  Just use one or two add ins.  This is a main dish, not a casserole.

What we have here are two chicken breasts sliced about 1/3-1/4 in thick.  You can pay for thinly sliced chicken breasts.  They're chicken cutlets in your meat market, or you can do it the cheaper way.  Buy some boneless breasts and just slice them while they're still partly frozen.  Slicing them while they're thawed is a tricky business, because they're all slippery, squirmy, and squishy.  (gross, right?)  Having them slightly frozen helps a *lot*!  The other way you can do this instead of slicing is use a meat mallet, chair leg, rolling pin, rock... whatever... and beat the crap out of the chicken breasts until they're really thin, then cut them into manageable sized strips.  Chicken falls apart when tenderized like that, though, and they're easier to deal with (to me) if they're just sliced.  It takes less time, too.

We also have a bowl with a bit of flour in it.  In spite of the fact that it looks like a lot of chicken, there are just two breasts, so you won't need a lot of flour.  Dust the chicken lightly with salt and pepper if that makes you happy.  You won't miss them if you don't use them, unless you're a salt fiend.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a 12 inch skillet (one that has a lid).  Yes, you really need a large skillet for this.  Usually, I don't actually specify a skillet size, but today I am.  You need the space to brown your chicken right, and you need the room once you get the sauce started.  I actually like to use olive oil for this dish, because the hint of olive is a nice compliment to the lemony chicken.  My other favorite is butter.  Nothing browns as pretty as butter, and it tastes fabulous.  But, you can use whatever your favorite medium of greasy goodness is.

Yes, you *do* need to preheat your skillet.  It speeds things up, and makes the chicken prettier.  It also keeps you from cooking your skinny little cutlets to absolute death.

When there's a faint hint of smoke rising from your skillet and/or the surface of the oil shimmers, that's where you want to be.  On my stove, that's around medium high heat for a few minutes.

Dredge your chicken in the flour, and drop it in the skillet to get golden on each side.  Do this in batches for the prettiest results.  Cram too much in the skillet at once, and you don't get a good brown.  I think it drops the temperature too much and you end up steaming the meat more than sauteing it.

Once all your chicken is done, drop it on a plate in a warm oven (I have a "warm" setting, but the 200 setting will work, too.  You don't have to worry about it drying out, and you'll see why in a second.)

Right about here is where recipes tend to start veering away from each other in different directions.  The only thing they can really all agree on is browning the chicken and using lots of lemon.  I learned to make Chicken Picatta from a woman who grew up in Europe as a military brat.  She was an amazing cook.  Her way is both simple, and almost fool proof.  I've had other recipes, and they're not as tender or explosively flavorful as hers always was.

All she did at this point was leave the heat up high, then drop in some butter (about 3 Tbs), let it brown, then drop in some flour (about 1 Tbsp), let it brown, then put the lemon juice in first followed by the chicken broth.  Return the chicken to the pan, cover, and let is simmer very low for about 15 minutes.  Long enough to cook some pasta if you put your water on to boil about the time you started this.  That is basic Chicken Picatta.

And that's how I've always made my Picatta, until recently.  When you toss in the butter and flour, add a heaping teaspoon of minced garlic (this equates to about half a teaspoon garlic powder, give or take), and a couple of chopped green onions (this is also where you would want to put in your own custom add-ins if you decide to use them).  Let those simmer while the butter and flour are browning.  If you're using a nonstick skillet, you can add your lemon juice and broth at the same time.  If you're using a plain skillet, turn the heat up to high, and let that baby get hot, hot, hot!  Pour your lemon juice in there first, and watch the magic.  All the brown bits of yummy that are stuck to your pan will lift right off.  The acid in the lemon juice works this miracle, and it makes your sauce more flavorful.  Those browned bits are yummy!  This fabulous trick is called deglazing.  You can turn the heat back down when you add your chicken broth.

You don't need to wait for the sauce to thicken.  Put your chicken back in, clamp a lid on it, and simmer it low for 15-20 minutes, or however long it takes you to finish up your side dishes.  It won't overcook or dry out.  The worst that will happen is your sauce with get more like gravy, and your chicken will be fall-apart tender.

It goes great over pasta or rice, and glazed carrots set it off like a bomb.

1 lb baby carrots, or sliced regular carrots.
1/2 c chicken broth
1/2 c orange juice
a few good squeezes of pancake syrup

Put everything in a small pot with a lid on, turn it up high and bring to a boil, then reduce and let it simmer until the carrots are slightly tender (you can put a fork in them, but they've still got a bit of crunch).  Take the lid off, crank it back up and let it boil until the liquid is reduced by more than half (ideally it will become something of a syrup, but mine usually stays thin until it cools completely).  The carrots should be soft at that point, and the flavor should be all the way through them.  Easy peasy, and takes roughly 20-25 minutes.

If you start them right about the time you're getting your chicken out of the skillet, before you put in the butter and flour and have to pay attention again, they should be done at the same time.

If you put a pot of water on to boil for your pasta right as you're starting your chicken browning, your pasta will also be done almost simultaneously (depending on the size of the pot, obviously.  Smaller pots will boil faster, and might get done a little early.  But just stick the pot in the oven -- which should still be warm from keeping your chicken warm -- and it'll still be warm when your chicken finishes.)

See!  That was *easy*!

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