Why Hello There! And welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, where we breathe easy knowing Jon’s still wheezing. I’m your ailing author, Jon O’Guin, and today’s post, as I say so often, is going to get kind of weird. Not in terms of the recipe, though. No, this is straight up simplicity for some classic middle-class Americana dinner. And if you want to skip the weirdness for the straight shot, be my guest. But for those of you who want to take a little walk on the wild side, let’s dig into “Easy” Chicken Parmesan, and what your definition of “is” is.
Weirdness is As Weirdness Does
As some off the cuff quick house-keeping, I’d like to thank all of you who extended your well-wishes after last week’s little health scare. Again, the doctors say all my tests say I’m fine. My current guess is that I stacked a couple issues on top of each other: It was late, I was unknowingly starting to get an upper respiratory illness (diagnosed by my doctor after Thursday’s post), I was tired, and I had just spent a weekend where at least twice Kato tried sleeping physically ON my chest, allowing her to squeeze the air from my lungs both through external force AND through the inflammation my allergy to her causes!
Don’t let her big eyes distract you, she is ruthless in begging for attention and additional food.
The most likely explanation is simply that this strained the (apparently real) joints in my sternum, and to realign themselves, they ‘popped’, and this was sufficiently new and different for my body that it didn’t know how to process it.
But I could be wrong about that. Because I’m wrong quite often, a fact I’m willing to admit to quite easily. Most people are wrong, in one way or another, quite often, and it’s through learning how and why we’re wrong that we become right. If you’re wondering where this suddenly magnanimous life-lesson is coming from, it’s because it literally wasn’t until I started to try and write this post that I realized how EASY it would have been, if I had either done it sooner, or held out on another post.
See, today’s recipe is for Chicken Parmesan. And I’m using that name VERY specifically: Chicken Parmesan is, along with Deep-Dish Pizza or Spaghetti and Meatballs, a result of Italian IMMIGRANTS in other countries, as a result of the Italian diaspora. Which (and this is a tragic/fun fact we didn’t get to cover in our first post discussing the issue) is partly America’s fault. Yeah, there were a LOT of Diasporas from various European nations in the late 1880s and 90s as people left to come to America…Because America had actually just made a lot of them broke.
“Hello everyone, we’d like to thank you all for coming and being with us today, particularly since we forced you to sell your houses to move here…”
For some reason, the late 1800’s are RIFE with details we just don’t really talk about, like the fact that it’s when the Great Depression happened. No, not that one. The Depression of the 1930’s STOLE THE NAME of a previous economic event, which is now known as “The Long Depression”, because depending on how you count it, it was either six years long… or TWENTY TWO. And part of the reason it ended in six years for America is that America’s westward expansion had built enough, that right around that time we started exporting huge amounts of wheat, which then sold for much cheaper than European farms could support. So right as 1880 starts up, America starts undercutting European farmers, who then move to America to find economic opportunity. This time period is actually RIFE with weird call-backs and call forwards to parts of European history: Napoleon III, the nephew of the one you’re thinking of, loses a war in Winter to a more easterly European nation, which has one more letter in its name then the one you’re thinking of (Prussia, who used their victory to unite the Germanic kingdoms into one German Empire, as we’ve discussed before) And Ireland had a famine, which was much less painful then the one you’re thinking of, though I’d like to note this one was recent enough after the one you are thinking of that it implies a large part of the Irish population around 1882 had lived through TWO ‘Great Famines’.
Another point of evidence in my ongoing “I really think “luck of the Irish” was a cruel joke” campaign.
What do any of these numerous and honestly life-changing facts have to do with ‘weirdness’? Everything. See, I called out my own over-use of the word “weird” because I know I use it when more precise words like “unique”, “esoteric”, or “convoluted to the point of incomprehensibility” would be more appropriate. And that’s because, in a small way, I like to try and reclaim the word ‘weird’. So often it’s used in a purely negative sense, to deride those who are unusual, and that’s not just an insult to those people for being themselves, it’s an insult to the WORD.
The word Weird is from the Old English and Norse wyrd, meaning “fate” or “destiny”, from even older “to turn, to come to pass”. It fell out of use in English, but stayed in Scots as weird, meaning both one’s fate, one who has the power to CHANGE fate, or a prophecy of fate or destiny. This was brought back to English (Shakespeare named his fate-predicting witches at the beginning of the infamous “Scottish Play” the Weird Sisters because they controlled Fate, and the play was set in Scotland), where the idea of these mystics and magical creatures that could alter or predict the future were seen as strange. The use of “weird” to mean “different in a bad way” LITERALLY DERIVES from people trying to write off witches and faeries and spells as ‘confusing and icky.’
Though, I don’t think the witches NEEDED to stick their tongues out while prophesying future kings, but I’m not a witch, so I don’t know the rules.
This point in turn, as one might guess, has relatively little to do with Chicken Parmesan, except this: things are weird because they must be. It is their fate to be. But all things are weird. Their paths knotted and twisted, shaped and formed by their progenitors.
Chicken Parmesan is a dish invented in the meat-rich markets of America by Italian immigrants, who fled the poverty the very markets they now prospered in created in their home countries. Made with chicken instead of eggplant, because despite America’s wealth in meat, grains, and money, they didn’t have the soil for the same great vegetables as in Italy. They ate like kings…because they no longer had the means to eat like peasants.
And if that feels like a convoluted narrative or epistemological argument, OH MAN, I hope you’re ready for needless linguistics!
Giump on jn, the Uater’s Fjne.
Let me start by assuring you all that neither Title Jon nor I have suddenly suffered a stroke, nor have YOU suffered one from our previous argument, where Shakespeare’s Scottish witches empowered impoverish Italians. No, the title is just meant to be an introduction to how this is going to be a brief and dumb aside about how much the city of Parma has frustrated me over the last year or two because of a single fucking letter.
Yeah, your city’s pretty.
As I noted just a second ago, and have said several times, the demonym for the city of Parma in Italian is Parmigiano. (in case you forgot: demonym is just the word for “how you turn a place name into an adjective”. So, “Texan” is the demonym of Texas, and “Californian” California, etc.) And whenever I tell people that, they tend to ignore me and try and make it through their bus ride without making any more eye contact, or brush it off as ‘okay, cool” if they’re my friend and socially obligated to acknowledge my random outbursts. But If I could tell ME that (presumably using some sort of time-travel trolling technique), one of the first things that I’d ask me is “where’d the G come from?” Because for me, that G has been pain in the ass. It’s like a loose tooth that just won’t fall, or an itch you just can’t quite reach. It makes some sense, of course. The normal end for denomyns in Italian is “-iano”, just like it’s –ian in English. And since Parma ends in a vowel, you need to add SOME consonant there, otherwise it’s Parma-iano, or Parmi-iano and that looks bonkers.
But who added the G? And when? And trust me, I LOOKED THIS UP. I dug through sources, checked sites near and wide, and everyone just kind of shrugged. So I’m going to propose my theory here for the origin of the g in that name, because you can’t stop me, and also because I am swiftly running out of time and your good-will. (Thought, in my defense, the alliteration in the last two paragraphs should have bought me back SOME good-will)
Because I have pretty good proof that that G is just a fucking J. And it’s not even a REAL J either, but an I.
I swear this explanation makes sense.
Let’s tackle the second bit first, because nothing else we’ve done today made sense, so why start now? This may sound like utter nonsense, unless you’re a particular fan of Indiana Jones films, where you’ll likely remember the wise words of Sean Connery.
My lawyers tell me that attribution isn’t sufficient, but we’ll see about THAT.
Yes, Jehovah begins with an I. And that’s not because of some sort of secret Hebrew trick where the I is silent, (which wouldn’t make sense, since Jews didn’t write Latin) but rather because the letter J didn’t EXIST until the 1500s. (though, since that’s long after the actual Crusades, one wonders how the trap had a J tile for indy to be wrong about…) Before that, J was represented by the letter I. ESPECIALLY in Latin texts. Because Latin actually had several fewer letters than the modern alphabet: Y, V, U, and W were all the same damn letter, G was invented to clear up which sound C was making, and J wasn’t invented yet. So the word for ‘young’ in Latin, written IVVENIS (Latin ONLY used capital letters), was pronounced “yoo-wenees. So in Latin, Js are Is, and Us are Ws, hence most of title Jon’s gibberish.
So If I can be a consonant, suddenly “Parmiiano” doesn’t look so silly. It’d be said like “Par-mee-ya-no”, and that sounds pretty normal. And later, maybe they would change it to “Parmajano”, when the letter gets changed. But they DON’T, because for some reason, Italian drew a line in the sand about that. Italian did NOT adopt the J. Instead, they seem to have decided to re-purpose another letter. Because my name is Jonathan. Starts with a J. You know what the Italian equivalent is? Giovanni. “G-I”. The name James, in Italy, becomes “Giacomo”, Jane becomes “Gianna”, etc. When someone told Italy “Hey, we’re making consonant I go “juh” now,”, Italy said “Wait, G already does that. Fuck learning a new letter, we’re just going to use that guy instead.”
Italy, well known for talking a lot, but rather frugal with their letters.
I mean, it goes straight from V to Z!
So Parmigiano is really just Italian trying to cope with someone changing how the consonant I is written and pronounced over centuries, after they had already started writing down their names.
And with THAT, I honestly feel…just fucking great. The G is dead. Long live the I. I have scratched a year-long mental itch, and feel…so damn relieved. And after you slogged through all of that with me, I think we need to unwind with something easy, right? So let’s make some easy Chicken Parm.
Take it Easy, Take it Easy, Don’t Let That Fuckin’ G Go Drive you Crazy
I’m feeling so good, not even the Eagles are going to harsh this buzz, man.
Alright, down to brass tacks. Chicken parm is pretty direct shit. Bread some chicken, fry the chicken, sauce it, cook it, serve it. Now, since this is an Easy Chicken Parm recipe, we’re not going to be doing much here that’s very impressive. In fact, I’ll tell you right now that the reason my family made this recipe is because we were intrigued by a $2 product at Albertsons.
Aren’t we all tempted by little bits of spiced bread?
Or is my family becoming more bird-like, as our chickens infect our mind?
Panko, in case you don’t know, is a type of Japanese breadcrumb that’s been gaining in popularity over the last couple decades. The way they’re made is somewhat complicated, but the end result is that they’re larger ‘flakes’ of dried bread, rather than Western premade breadcrumbs, which are typically more of a powder. As such, panko-breaded produts tend to have a slightly more textured and ‘crunchy’ coating. However, since it’s a Japanese product, it’s not often seasoned. So the idea of Italian Panko immediately triggered an interest in my family to try it out.
Now, in my opinion, there’s a great challenge to Chicken Parmesan: You want the crisp coating of the breading, as well as the soft, moist chicken, and the flavor of the tomato sauce, AND the melted cheese on the top. But this has a lot of moving parts for a chef to try and hit in a single pan or pot. Without training, it’s very hard to judge precisely when coated chicken is done, as the coating naturally blocks most of the ways you can check. So many recipes, to be safe, have you simmer the chicken in the sauce after frying, in order to ensure it’s heated through. Which naturally means the sauce permeates the coating, rendering it no longer crisp. In order to keep it crisp through the simmering, you have to over-cook the coating, and thus the chicken ends up tough. Then there’s the cheese. You either place it on the chicken before the sauce, in which case it might float off during the simmering, or you try and place cheese on reddish pads of chicken in bubbling baths of sauce in a currently running hot oven. A lot can go wrong with this method.
We circumvent this issue in three ways: first, we didn’t use whole chicken breasts. We used chicken breast cutlets, which are pre-cut slices of the breast. Since it’s thinner, that means it’ll cook faster, so we don’t need to worry about heating it through in the sauce. Just slap it in a pan until it’s golden brown, maybe 5 minutes.
Beautiful piece of chicken.
Second, we use more pans. We avoid simmering the chicken in the sauce altogether. Instead, we simmered the sauce on its own, and ladled it onto the chicken before broiling. This does add more steps to the process, as well as dirtying another dish for clean-up, but it makes the recipe more fool-proof. Also, changing our last step actually allows us to AVOID cleaning a dish, so it evens out.
So we’ve fried our thin cutlets of chicken, and they’re ready for assembly. Instead of plopping them in a casserole dish or dutch oven and pouring on the sauce, instead we line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and assemble the dish thusly: chicken, two ladles of sauce over the chicken, two slices of mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Broil that for 4-5 minutes, and the result is spectacular.
Spectacularly goopy, at least.
We served ours with asparagus (a popular quick-steamed option in the O’Guin household), Caesar Salad, and Garlic Bread. And it nails the goals I laid out earlier: the chicken is tender and moist, the breading is still crisp from the high heat of the oven and the brief association with the sauce, and the cheese is melted over the top. It’s not authentically Italian, but it doesn’t have to be. This is an American dish. It’s rooted in Italy, but bloomed here. And maybe this is a weird way to make Chicken Parm to you, but hey, we’ve all got our weird to follow.
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THURSDAY: YOU KNOW WHAT? LET’S GET REAL NITTY-GRITTY ABOUT THIS. LET’S TALK CRUMBS.
MONDAY: IN HONOR OF APRIL FOOL’S, WE MAKE A RECIPE THAT’S PART ART, PART LIE, AND DEFINITELY SOMETHING THAT YOU SHOULD TRY.
Let's get weird with this
Easy Chicken Parm
4-6 chicken breast cutlets, trimmed if desired (~1 lb package)
2 cups Italian Panko Breadcrumbs
4 tbsps vegetable oil, divided
1 large bottle tomato sauce
8-10 slices mozzarella cheese
½ cup shredded or grated parmesan
1. Prepare a dredge: beat the two eggs into a shallow bowl, dish, or rimmed plate, and pour the breadcrumbs into a SECOND dish, plate, or shallow bowl. Working one at a time, dip your chicken cutlets into the egg, and then place in the breadcrumbs. Cover, and repeat with remaining cutlets.
2. Pour the tomato sauce into a small saucepan, and bring to a bare simmer over medium-low heat.
3. Heat 2 tbsps of the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add 2-3 of the cutlets, ensuring there’s plenty of room around each one. Cook 3-5 minutes, allowing the coating to sit and brown. Repeat with the remaining oil and cutlets.
4. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, and preheat your oven to broil. If desired, place the baking sheet and foil in the oven as it heats. Once prepped, place the fried cutlets onto the foil-lined sheet. Ladle 1-2 scoops of tomato sauce over each cutlet, adding mozzarella slices to cover, and sprinkling with Parmesan. Broil 3-5 minutes, until cheese is melted and bubbling. Serve hot.