I occasionally work at a cooking school. By “occasionally,” I mean I used to work in a cooking school, but with a recent promotion (heyyyyy) I work almost exclusively on the retail floor (as a manager) at a store that contains the cooking school.
But this is a story about the cooking school.
There are tons of different classes taught in this kitchen, but the most common themes are French and Italian. It was during my first year at this store that I encountered…nay, heard of chicken piccata for the first time. Less popular this year for some reason, chicken piccata used to be the recipe du jour of the Italian-themed summer classes. I was working in the kitchen during one such class and there was an excess of the entree after the students were done, so I was able to sample a little bit.
Just one bite and I was in love. (Sorry, cardamom, but I’m a capers dude now.)
Such a simple recipe, and yet so intriguingly delicious. No wonder it was all the rage. In fact, until I attempted chicken piccata months later, following Giada’s recipe first, I had never made anything like it. The only meat I had ever seared up until that point was steak, which I always, always followed with garlic, rosemary, butter, and red wine. Never before had I dredged a piece of protein, let alone braised it in its own fat.
My first time making chicken piccata, and admittedly my second, third, and fourth times, I was not quite satisfied, but I was obsessed with figuring out how to make what I had tasted in that cooking class kitchen over the summer. I bothered chefs for advice, read every recipe on the Internet, and watched videos until I fell asleep, and I just kept making chicken piccata.
My mom’s family is from the Midwest, and if we’re talking bloodlines and ethnicity, they’re Portuguese (kind of.) They’re seven-layer-salad Midwest, Swedish meatballs Midwest (hint: I’ve finally perfected my take on Magnus Nilsson’s Swedish meatballs and you can expect a post about that in the new year.) Despite the mix of Scandinavian and Portuguese-ish heritage, it came about that when my mom’s family visits, I make Italian food. Why? The first time they visited after I moved home, I desperately wanted to perfect and show off my focaccia recipe. Subsequent visits involved attempts at chicken piccata, homemade ravioli, and recently, even chicken cacciatore. Basically, timing. Also, they always visit in the summer, which means basil and tomatoes, and thus, all things caprese.
Also also, my aunt owns a farm and an organic bed and breakfast in Spain, where she not only raises her own animals and provides her own ingredients for her B&B kitchen, but she also picks and presses her own olives. About a year and a half ago, she came to us with easily a gallon of first-press Spanish olive oil from her farm, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to make sourdough focaccia, caprese salads (with our own basil and farmer’s market tomatoes), handmade pasta, and my two new favorite chicken dishes with my aunt’s own olive oil.
Thus, in a family with only one Italian person through marriage on my dad’s side, I make Italian food for my mom’s relatives.
And if you ever visit, I’ll make some for you. But for now, here’s a simple, Italian-esque chicken recipe: chicken piccata.
If you peek around on the internet, you’ll find a few different definitions of piccata and even a few different rules about what a real chicken piccata contains, but generally, the word refers to a meat breaded and cooked in a butter sauce. With chicken, the common flavor is lemon, and the favored addition are capers. More commonly, you see veal piccata (and veal marsala, but that’s a post for another year.) With dishes made in the same way as chicken piccata, you don’t need to dredge the meat, but traditionally, piccata is made with breaded cutlets, and the flour from the meat helps indirectly thicken the sauce (like a dissembled roux.)
The most important things I’ve discovered over the past year and some months of making this recipe are:
- Save the butter for last, or else it’ll burn before the sauce is done. Use vegetable oil or light olive oil for the searing.
- Add just enough lemon juice that you can definitely taste the lemon, but don’t substitute the lemon for the chicken stock, or the sauce will be too sour.
- Most chicken piccata recipes move through the steps rapidly (like when you’re doing a seared steak with wine reduction), but treating the recipe more like a braised meat really makes a different: let the wine reduce, let the sauce cook for a while, and finish the meat in the sauce instead of the oven, so that it doesn’t dry out.
adapted from Giada De Laurentiis
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast and/or thigh
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
3~4 Tbsp canola oil or light, refined olive oil
1/4 c all-purpose flour
extra-virgin olive oil or more light olive oil, as needed
1/3 c (~3 oz) lemon juice
1/4 c (2 oz) dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot, or even white cooking wine
1/2 c (4 oz) unsalted chicken stock
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp capers, drained (NOT rinsed)
Fresh parsley, chopped coarsely, to garnish
An hour or more before you’re ready to start, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Rest the chicken on a plate or cookie sheet between paper towels to dry.
If you’re using chicken breasts, I recommend butterflying them: lay the breast flat on a cutting board, and holding a long, sharp knife with the flat side parallel to the board, slice through the meat and open it flat like a book.
It’s also worth tenderizing the chicken breasts. Chicken thighs are already thin and tender, so you can skip ahead if you’re only using thighs. Wrap the chicken breasts, butterflied or not, in plastic or parchment paper, lay on a cutting board, and using a meat mallet, empty wine bottle, meat stamp, or rolling pin, roll or pound the chicken out until it becomes thinner and wider. Let the breasts rest on the paper towels to dry and warm up.
If you’re using chicken thighs, unravel them and lay them flat on the paper towels.
Heat a large skillet or sauté pan on medium-high. For 1 pound of meat, a skillet measuring 10 inches or wider is ideal, but you can cook the chicken in batches, so a smaller skillet or a larger recipe will work just as well.
In a shallow serving dish or plate, combine salt, pepper, and all-purpose flour and whisk with a fork.
Once the skillet has been heating for about 10-15 minutes, add a few tablespoons of canola or light olive oil and tilt the pan to coat the bottom. There are a few ways to determine when your oil is hot: if you tilt the pan and the oil runs like water (the viscosity is thin); if you tilt the pan so the oil pools on one side, and then stick the end of a wooden utensil in the pool and see bubbles like you’re deep-frying the utensil; or if the oil is starting to smoke. Additionally, you can flick a little bit of the all-purpose flour into the pan and see if it bubbles and fries.
Dredge each piece of chicken, covering it in a light coating of seasoned flour on every side, edge, and in the nooks and crannies, then gently lay the chicken in the smoking oil. If you don’t immediately hear a sizzle, turn up the heat a bit and wait a few minutes before proceeding. You can do the chicken in multiple batches: keep the raw chicken between the paper towels until you’re ready to dredge and fry it.
Sear each piece of chicken on both sides*, until nicely bronzed. Once seared on both sides, remove each piece of chicken and set aside on a clean plate or in a clean bowl. Repeat with all of the chicken.
*When searing, I use the mantra, “set it and forget it…for a few minutes.” Don’t mess with the protein! Set it gently into the hot oil, let it sizzle, and let it brown for a few minutes. The meat will stick to the pan at first, and then gradually release as it sears up. Additionally, “golden brown” is the common phrase, but darker than gold is ideal, hence “nicely bronzed.” A bronze/copper color is the way to go.
You can do both thighs and breasts simultaneously.
Once all the chicken is seared off, lower the heat on the pan to medium-low and add the extra virgin olive oil (or light olive oil.) Let the oil heat for a few minutes, then pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits along the bottom. Simmer and reduce the wine a little bit, cooking for about 10-15 minutes.
Whisk in the lemon juice and chicken stock, and let simmer and thicken for about 10 – 15 minutes. Taste and adjust by adding more salt, pepper, wine, lemon juice, or stock. The sauce should be tart and flavorful but not purely lemon-y.
Add the chicken back to the pan, then add the butter and capers. Cover and let the chicken simmer in the sauce for about 10 – 15 minutes, until cooked through and ready to serve. Taste occasionally for seasoning. The sauce should end up lemon-y and buttery but not painfully acidic.
Serve the chicken and sauce over pasta or on its own.