These are dark times, friends. Literally! It's dark as hell all the time, because it is winter, and everything is polar vortices and bitter bullying winds and frostbite and uncontrollable sobbing and making a fort out of couch cushions and hiding inside the fort shrouded in sweaters and jackets and layers upon layers of paper towels and burning the paper towels for warmth, and sobbing. You go outside and your whole goddamn face chips off and shatters on the sidewalk, and you think to yourself that maybe that is a good thing, because at least now you look kind of happy, because skulls always look happy. Skulls. Why can't we all be them.
How will we live? How will we want to live? The answer: We will make tasty things to eat, things that remind us of the warmer months, and we will eat them. Like, for example, today you are cooking and eating chicken cutlets, which, I mean, chicken is not really all that summery—but you are also cooking a quick, fresh-tasting tomato sauce for your chicken cutlets, and you are using fresh herbs if you can find them anywhere without freezing to death. And this will be your reason to live, for a time anyway. Until the next time you run out of tissues (from the sobbing), venture outside in pursuit of some, and turn into a goddamn snowperson.
Now, if your ears pricked up at the mention of chicken cutlets and tomato sauce, you may be wondering whether we are making chicken parmigiana—the chicken version of the layered-and-baked dish more famously made with eggplant or cutlets of veal—and whether, if that is what we are making, we couldn't have just said so, like in the title or something, I mean don't you people have editors for chrissakes, and so on. The difference between what we're doing here and chicken parmigiana is that we're going to stop at breading and frying the chicken cutlets, and skip from there to the part where we pair the cutlets with tomato sauce and eat them, which means cutting out the part where we layer the cutlets with sauce in a casserole dish and bake them for a long time. Couple reasons for that. First, the layering-and-baking routine, with chicken at least, tends not to accomplish much beyond letting the cutlet's crispy-fried breading absorb a bunch of liquid and get soggy, which is a bummer. Second, goddamn it, this is the middle of fucking winter; we need hot food, fucking stat.
So, yeah, this is gonna turn out to be kind of a weird half-assed amalgam of chicken parmigiana, chicken Milanese, and a straightforward friggin' breaded chicken cutlet. It's also going to taste very, very good, which you'll agree [stares daggers] is much more important than what an internet food person tells you to call it. I mean, call it Steamed Rat Dick if you want. It's your food, after all, you goddamn weirdo.
To begin, before you get around to handling any bird parts, whip out a medium-sized saucepot and start a basic tomato sauce. Cook some chili flakes and chopped onions and garlic in oil for a few minutes; dump a big can of whole tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find 'em; um, not San Marzano if you cannot find San Marzano) on top of the aromatics, break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon, chuck in some tomato paste and a few glugs of cheap red wine, and let this stuff simmer in the background while you cook everything else.
And now, produce chicken breast cutlets. You can go about this a couple of different ways, and are of course free to choose for yourself: Whether to acquire some packaged cutlets that have been pounded and cut already, or to acquire some whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts and pound and cut them yourself. For the purposes of this preparation, we will proceed as though you have indicated a preference for enacting grisly violence upon some poor bird's dismembered boobs, and then we will back away from you slowly while placing a call to the local authorities.
In the meantime! Here is how to turn a large chicken breast into four flat cutlets. Lay the breast on top of a sheet of plastic wrap on a cutting board; holding your biggest, sharpest, and most frightening knife on its side (so that the blade is parallel to the surface of the cutting board), slice through the breast horizontally, cutting it in half. Place one of these halves between two sheets of plastic wrap (to prevent spattering salmonella juice) on top of the cutting board, and pound the ever-loving shit out of it with the mallet, that, ha ha, you do not own a mallet, you are not fooling anyone. Use the side of that sad can of Dinty Moore beef stew that your grandfather left you in his will.
Really wallop that goddamn chicken, like you would if it suddenly started speaking in Jay Mariotti's voice, until it is roughly a quarter-inch thick all over. (The chicken breast will spread out as you do this.) Examine the result, and pretend that in its general outline you are able to perceive a rudimentary squareness; now, with your very frightening knife, slice this "square" in half so that you are left with two vaguely rectangular, quarter-inch-thick flaps of chicken. Cutlets. There. Set these aside, and repeat the beating-and-slicing with that other half of the chicken breast. You have now turned a breast into four cutlets. You can tell your cellmate all about it, you fucking lunatic!
(You should assume that each person who will taste one of these cutlets will be possessed by a desire to taste at least one, or maybe four, more of them. Some very sophisticated non-linear mathematical equations indicate that this means you should assume no less than half a chicken breast per person, and also that there are NSA radio transmitters in your teeth. Plan accordingly.)
So now you've got your cutlets all pounded out and ready to go. This grim exercise of violence has left you with a sheen of sweat, the wild, feral eyes of a madman, and a potent, carnal musk. Actually your wrist hurts from swinging a goddamn stew-can for a half hour and you wish you could just have a nice bowl of soup and go to bed. But no! You are not finished yet. Heat up some olive oil over medium heat in a wide skillet. Maybe, oh, three or four tablespoons? That sounds good. I mean I have no idea how big your skillet is. Maybe you are Paul Bunyan and your skillet is an acre across. Use enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet without pooling together in one spot and leaving the rest of the skillet naked.
While the oil is heating, apply breading to cutlets. Set up three stations: a dish filled with dry flour, a bowl of beaten eggs, and a wide bowl or storage container filled with a 2:1 mixture of unseasoned breadcrumbs and grated Pecorino cheese (and maybe some fennel seeds and dried thyme and cracked black pepper, or not, it's your damn food). That last bowl is the breading; the other stuff is there to help the breading adhere to the chicken.
So, here's how to apply breading to a chicken cutlet (and also to other things that need to have breading applied to them) in the manner of a clean person even though you are not one of those and never will be. You (probably) have two hands; for the purposes of this procedure, designate one of them your Dry Hand, and the other one your Wet Hand. With your Dry Hand, drop one of the cutlets into the dry flour; flip it over and move it around until it is completely covered with flour, touching it only with your Dry Hand; with your Dry Hand, lift the cutlet from the flour and give it a vigorous shake to get rid of any excess; drop it gently into the beaten egg bowl without allowing your Dry Hand to touch the liquid egg. Now, with your Wet Hand, lift the cutlet from the liquid egg and let the excess egg run off the cutlet back into the beaten egg bowl, and then lower the cutlet into the breading without allowing your Wet Hand to touch the dry breading. With your Dry Hand, scoop some of the breading on top of the cutlet, and flip the cutlet over and scoop some more onto it so that it is completely covered, and let it sit in there for a minute so that its coating can become sticky before you cook it.
Now, cook cutlets. (Actually, this will be a bit more like an assembly-line affair: You'll bread one or two or three cutlets, move them to the skillet, and while they're cooking you'll get the next few cutlets breaded, and then move them to the skillet when the first batch is done cooking, and so on.) The skillet and its oil are pretty hot and the cutlets are very thin; they shouldn't take more than two or three minutes per side to turn golden-brown and crispy. When that first batch gets there, move them to a cooling rack (Note: This can be an oven rack or grill grate positioned on top of a baking pan, if that's the best you can do) or a paper towel, and top each of them with a leaf or two of fresh basil (if you can get it) and then, on top of that, a slice or two of provolone cheese. The cheese will melt a bit while the cutlets wait for you to cook their brethren; the smell of the warm basil will fill your kitchen and lungs and soul and remind you of the summer whose eventual return is your sole reason for continuing to live.
Repeat, until all your chicken cutlets are cooked and basiled and cheesed and ready. Check the pot of tomatoes and (figurative) shit you've had simmering in the background this whole time: By now, the tomatoes and aromatics have broken down and combined with the wine and tomato paste into a modestly and appealingly chunky but still fresh and vibrant-tasting sauce. Turn the heat off under the pot, and stir in some rough-chopped fresh basil (if you can get it) and finely chopped fresh oregano (also if you can get it). Lean your head over the pot, close your eyes, and inhale deeply through your nose. Mmmmmmm oh man oh man, oh man open your eyes no no no don't dunk your face in the scalding-hot tomato sauce.
This is where, if you were committed to going all the way with the basic parmigiana outline of the steps you've taken so far, you would spend a buncha goddamn time layering all this shit in a baking dish (maybe with some sliced mozzarella) and sticking it in a preheated oven and waiting forever for it to be "done," even though it's all "done" now, in the sense that everything is already cooked and edible and good-tasting, and also in the sense that it is the middle of goddamn winter and you may very well die of sadness and despair while you wait for your food to complete an entirely unnecessary final step of cooking. Fuck that shit! It's time to eat!
You've got a couple of options, here. You can stick one or two of your chicken cutlets on a plate by themselves, or with a salad, and scoop some of that sauce on top of them, and eat them, and that will be a very pleasant meal indeed. Or, you can do that same thing, only on top of a bed of cooked pasta that has been tossed with a small amount of the tomato sauce—this will also be very enjoyable.
Or! Best of all! You can crank open an Italian sandwich roll, sock one of those chicken cutlets in there with an immodest, improbable quantity of sloppy tomato sauce (and if you should happen to misplace a thick slice of mozzarella in there, that's OK, too), squeeze that fucker shut, and fire it directly into your head, crunchy and juicy and tart and salty and oh so satisfying, leaving great glorious gobs of hot tomato all over your happy rosy cheeks, and wash it down with big Dionysian gulps of more of that cheap red wine, and wipe your face with your hand or your sleeve or your outraged cat, and make a grotesque and wonderful and blissful Aaaaaaahhhhhhh satisfied noise, and have another, and another, and another, and live to welcome spring with open arms and a beatific smile and a belly stuffed with things that are hot and nourishing and happymaking and good.
Do that. It will be warm where you are, and you will be the warmth.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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