I don't make chicken Parmesan or "chicken parm" as it will be called for the purposes of this story. Not because I don't like it. I actually love it. I can't get enough of crispy, shallow fried chicken dressed with a tangy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. I don't make it based completely on principle. I will not make it because of an incident that happened ten years ago, on my 40th birthday when I had to head to the supermarket to purchase my own birthday cake so that my little children could watch me blow out a candle on my big day. Since it didn't look as if their father, my husband had made any plans to celebrate, it was entirely up to me to make this happen. But while I was there, I thought about how I really did not want to make dinner on my own birthday and maybe, just maybe he would pick up on this if I just dropped a hint. So, I called him while he was at work:
"Hi, what do you want for dinner tonight?" I said in a hopeful tone.
"I don't know, how about chicken parm?" He responded. WTF? He was clearly not getting my hint.
"Are you crazy??? I don't want to cook that on my birthday!!" I shouted into the phone alarming all the old ladies shopping in the bakery section of Roche Bros. Supermarket.
"Well, how about something easy like roast chicken with rice and some vegetables?" Such a stupid man, still clearly not understanding this situation, at all. He has no ideas what it takes to just roast a chicken.
"Never mind. I will think of something. Bye." I slammed my phone into my purse. He was lucky I even ended the conversation by saying good-bye.
To his credit, my husband did call me back a few minutes later and offered to make a "stir-fry" which I declined since he had no idea how to make it. But I did appreciate the thought. Seriously, though, who would suggest that the birthday person should make a labor intensive dish like chicken parm on their own birthday for the rest of the family to consume? Not to mention the fact that I was still in the process of purchasing my own cake. I was pretty pissed off.
Fast forward to the following year on my 41st birthday.
My husband, Rob, announced that he would be making dinner for my birthday and what would I like? I quickly snapped: "Chicken parm." He looked at me blankly for a moment then asked where he might find such a recipe, as if this meal was in my normal, weekly repertoire. (It's not.) I promptly told him that I didn't know and opened a book and began reading, completely ignoring his puzzled expression. I had been holding onto to this for a year now, just waiting for the right moment to get him back. He was on his own for this one.
He knew that take-out or anything pre-made from the grocery store would not be acceptable to me and I did not offer any suggestions. It would be entirely up to him to source recipes, ingredients and to figure it all out in the kitchen. The pressure was on as I was clearly not in the mood for a meal that would only earn an "A" for effort. This dish had to deliver or I would have to drink a lot of wine to get through it.
When Rob is in the kitchen, on few occasions, but it happens, I prefer to stay away. I don't want to see the various abuses to my favorite tools or the mess splattering and adhering itself to the stove top and walls. Also, I was a little afraid for him of the final outcome. Although I did manage a peek at a few pages printed out from the internet before he snatched them away and banished me to another room until dinner was ready.
It seemed like an eternity, waiting to be called to the table. The kids kept checking to see if I was spying, smells of sauteed garlic and olive oil wafted through the air and the sound of a mallet being slammed on the butcher block piqued my curiosity. My senses told me that this dinner certainly held some promise. By the time I was finally asked to sit down, the wine was poured and I was served a perfectly golden crisp chicken breast, pounded thin, to an even thickness, coated with just enough tomato sauce and melted mozzarella, I was pretty convinced. After taking the first bite, I was a full convert. This meal was an achievement, worthy of the finest Italian restaurant located in the North End of Boston.
That's the problem with great accomplishments, people want you to repeat them over and over, again. So, since my 41st birthday, I am sure you can guess what my birthday dinner request is and who is required to make it. Since then, Rob still asks me every year, "What would you like me to make you for dinner on your birthday?" And I still snap back in my sassiest tone, "Chicken parm." Then I leave the room as if to make a point. I don't offer to shop for ingredients or to figure out any part of the meal. I leave it all up to him and the kids to make me the best chicken parm dinner I will have all year. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
This is the recipe Rob uses every year to make his famous "Chicken Parm". Please note, he leaves out the Cubano chili pepper in the sauce recipe.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons water and seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 cup vegetable oil or pure olive oil
Tomato Sauce, recipe follows
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Fresh basil or parsley leaves, for garnish
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed with some kosher salt to make a paste
Two 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes and their juices, pureed in a blender
One 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 small bunch Italian parsley
1 Cubano chile pepper, chopped ***(Rob leaves this out)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge each breast in the flour and tap off excess, then dip in the egg and let excess drip off, then dredge on both sides in the bread crumbs.
3. Divide the oil between 2 large saute pans and heat over high heat until almost smoking. Add 2 chicken breasts to each pan and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking sheet and top each breast with some Tomato Sauce, a few slices of the mozzarella, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through and the cheese is melted, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with basil or parsley leaves.
Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add pureed tomatoes with their juices, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 cup water, bay leaf, parsley, Cubano pepper, and bring to a boil. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and cook until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.