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Better than the real thing

Chicken Parmesan
Having been mostly vegetarian for some 15 years, I am well versed in the ways of substitution. Non-meat eaters often have to go to great lengths to satisfy their protein cravings. Many meat substitute products are frighteningly bad (vegetarian bacon? No thank you …), but sometimes, these products actually excel: To this day DPaul and I still purchase veggie dogs (Yves brand are a particular favorite), and I am here to tell you that vanilla Tofutti Cuties truly are better than the real thing.

Giving up meat was one thing, but most recipes that eschew natural fats or sugars leave me utterly cold. It's not that I don't appreciate the desire to reduce calories and cholesterol (having, as I do, hereditary hypercholesteremia), but all too often these sacrifices are made at too high a price.

But once in a while, a recipe comes along that changes the way I think about low-whatever foods. It is, after all, possible to rethink a recipe totally, deconstruct it and rethink its elements, and return a newly engineered product that surpasses its predecessor. And thanks to America's Test Kitchen, chicken parmesan has been born again.

The reconstruction comes from analyzing expectations, not relying on traditions. By definition, chicken parmesan is a fried chicken cutlet, baked with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese; but what of the experience? It's all about the crunchy crust, and that means frying, right? Or does it?

Now, ATK embroiled themselves in something of a kerfuffle last year when they sent a blogger a cease and desist for reproducing one of their recipes. I'm not a fan of how they handled the whole situation, and really think they need to put their entire business model under the microscope, but I'm not going to get into that here. I am not going to repeat their recipe; I am, however, going to tell you how to do it.

ATK's readership is not necessarily the same as mine. Their recipes are exacting and fastidious; mine are wild-west at best. And at the end of the day, this really isn't a recipe — it's all about technique.

The big a-ha moment is that you put some panko in a pan with a small dollop of oil and brown them over medium heat, flipping regularly to prevent burning, until they're a gorgeous golden brown. Then spread them out on a plate to cool.

If you've fried anything, this will be familiar territory. Butterfly the chicken breasts, pound them down to 1/4 paillards, and pat them dry. Set up your dredging station: A plate of seasoned flour, a bowl with two beaten egg whites, and the browned bread crumbs mixed with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and, if you like, dry oregano. Finally, set a wire rack over a baking sheet to the right; you might want to spray the rack with oil.

Dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking off excess, then the egg whites, and finally the bread crumbs, patting to get them to adhere. Set the breaded cutlets on the wire rack and let rest for a few minutes to allow the breading to set. Bake them off in a hot oven (450-475ºF) for 10-15 minutes — your mileage may vary.

Meanwhile, heat up your favorite marinara sauce and grate a bunch of mozzarella cheese. When the chicken is done, or nearly so, spoon some sauce over the middle of each cutlet, top with cheese, and bake until the cheese goes all melty and brown. And there you are.

Need more specific instructions? It's all on the Cook's Illustrated site. But it ain't free. Unless you just go in for the free trial period. Just sayin'.

Photography note:
This post's photo was the first using the new LowelEgo lamps that we won during Menu for Hope V, courtesy of Kalyn. We're pretty pleased with the results!

Related:
Read the blow-by-blow of Melissa's correspondence with Cook's Illustrated.
Kalyn's baked chicken strips with mustard, almond and parmesan are another light treat.
Chicken parmesan … in a crockpot?

  • EB

    My thought is that you can ‘fry’ almost anything covered in panko and it will be crispy-rific. By the way… what IS veggie-bacon? I mean… that’s like milk-free cheese. It’s not cheese!

  • I’ve been working on my own chicken parm recipe for a while now and I’ll have to check out the link – your picture looks amazing!
    ATK has kind of dropped off my radar after last years blogging fiasco. I also get a little chill when they speed up cooking times by constantly using canned products or try anything “ethnic.”

  • What an awesome idea (even if it is “property” of ATK). A good friend of mine LOVES chicken parmesan and makes it frequently (a baked version). I can’t wait to share this technique with him. Great photo! I bought the EGO lights after reading Jaden Hair’s post on them at the Steamy Kitchen. I love them. I need to use them more … I often just snap a photo on the kitchen counter and it doesn’t always come out so pretty. Laziness.

  • Hi Sean,
    Hey, I bid on those lights!!!
    The photo looks great! I’m glad to see one of my favorite bloggers won them. Nice!!
    Mmmm… Chicken Parm with Panko crust! That looks and sounds delish!
    I often bake with Panko crumbs instead of frying, and recently posted a Crispy Prawns with Spicy Aioli recipe, using the same technique, and they came out great.
    Now, I have some chicken breasts and half a box of panko crumbs waiting to be put to good use. Your chicken parm recipe sounds like just the thing! Thank you, Sean!!
    XOXOXOX,
    ~ Paula

  • EB: I know, right? Ew.
    sue bette: Oh to be sure I take all of ATK’s recipes with a grain of salt. They’re always technically accurate, but a little on the bland side for my palate. Must be that Northeastern stock. I always pump the recipes up.
    Kristin: My husband is the light whisperer; I don’t “get” lighting the way he does. I’m very pleased with the output of these lights though — even and no off colors.
    Paula: You know, we tried doing this with prawns and were not thrilled with the results — I think our prawns must have been injected or brined or something, and gave off too much moisture. I’ll definitely try it again. I’m curious whether you can do eggplant; I’m just crazy enough to try.

  • I like veggie bacon…..

  • More for you! 🙂

  • Oh wow, I had to scroll back up and look at the photo again. It really does look great. I think I have to bite the bullet and get the real thing (although even my jerry-rigged version sometimes works pretty well.)
    Sounds delicious too!

  • Absolute genius! I can’t wait to try this technique. Thanks a million.
    Great photo too… 🙂

  • Delicious looking meal there!

  • Hi Sean,
    I just saw this link; thank you. I adore chicken parmesan. mmm.
    I’m intrigued to read about the ATK kerfuffle…
    the page is taking a while to load. Maybe I should go get a glass of wine.
    xoxo
    steph

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