It was my distinct pleasure to coordinate a birthday dinner for a dear friend and to cook one of the entrees.
When you were a kidlet did you get to ask for your favorite birthday dinner? Mine was always pork chops braised in a curry sauce with apricots and onions. Once my sis asked for a full-on Thanksgiving dinner! In the summer! And she got it!
My friend’s childhood recollection of her favorite birthday dinner was veal Parmigiana and chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. My grocery budget doesn’t allow for veal but I do make a mean chicken Parm!
Turns out we were planning on feeding fifteen people, including hordes of children, so I knew I needed to make a big batch of chicken Parm. I wanted the birthday gal to have leftovers to take home also, so basically I needed to double my recipe. Costco was the perfect choice for large quantities of chicken, cheese and tomatoes and it felt fantastic to finally be un-gimpy enough to walk through the entire warehouse to shop. It took forever but I did it! It was fun too, I shopped with a mutual friend for the party and it was great to collaborate with someone on the overall menu.
Back at home, the night before the party I tackled the “do ahead” tasks such as grating the cheese for the breaded coating and making the largest pot of sugo or tomato sauce that I had made in several years. My first challenge was to open the enormous can of tomatoes, it was about three quarters of a gallon of tomatoes!
I love Andrew Carmellini’s book Urban Italian that I received for Christmas a few years ago and have absorbed his concept of a quick pasta sauce. I sauteed a huge white onion in olive oil until it was soft and added a tablespoon of sugar, a teaspoon of chile flakes, a tablespoon of sea salt and several teaspoons of dried oregano, and then began hand-crushing the tomatoes with the heel of my hand. Elbow deep in this giant can I scooped out tomatoes with my fingers and found stems, leaves and shreds of peels as well – not impressed with this product – I was glad I was doing this by hand! It was also my dinnertime so I added in some raw cheddar bratwursts from my favorite local butcher, 4505 Meats, to cook in the sauce. It was a nice symbiotic touch, they flavored the sauce and the sauce flavored them.
Eventually the sauce was done, it simmered for 45 minutes and then after a quick blitz with the immersion blender I tasted it for seasoning. Usually I use nicer tomatoes like San Marzano tomatoes and these domestic tomatoes had a lot of acid that I was used to. I didn’t want to add more sugar so I used James Beard’s mother’s trick for balancing out acid in her tomato soup recipe and added a 1/2 tsp of baking soda. It’s fun to watch the base soda react with the tomato acids and foam up! Once the foam subsided the chemical reaction of neutralizing the acid was complete, I tasted it again and the sauce was perfect. Into the fridge it went in my largest four quart storage bowl. Four quarts of sauce! I was worried I made too much but I could have actually used more in the recipe. Isn’t that something?
I took on grating the cheese next. It was a 1 1/2 pound block of cheese, it was like grating a hard bound book! My arms were flagging but I pressed on and grated almost all of it to use for the breading of the chicken and for sprinkling on top of the finished dish before baking.
(the cheese dwarfs my box grater)
The day of the party I pulled on my favorite mushroom-sprigged apron, tied up my hair and got to work pounding the chicken. A dozen chicken breasts pounded to a 1/2″ thickness takes a bit of time to do and I am sure my (nice) neighbors hate me. I hope my noisy upstairs neighbors got the fillings rattled out of their head from my banging away for about an hour!
(A little side note, it sure felt good to be able to do this kitchen task, a sure sign that my shoulder is all healed from its repair and subsequent injuries post-surgery. Hooray!)
Once the chicken was all pounded I realized that I needed to get creative for the breading process. A good chicken parm is coated in seasoned flour, dipped in beaten egg, and then crumbed with grated cheese and bread crumbs, then fried or baked before being layered in tomato sauce and mozzerella cheese and baked until bubbly and golden brown. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.
I may not have mentioned this much but most every kitchen in San Francisco has tiny kitchens. Apparently they are not as tiny as in New York per se but nonetheless they are quite tiny in comparison to the vast acreage of suburban kitchen counter space. I have one counter in my kitchen and it is next to the sink, covered with my luxurious but very necessary (to me) portable dishwasher. It doubles as a holder for the dish drainer as well. There is another small counter area directly underneath the built in cupboards that house my dishes and glassware. It has a clearance of perhaps 12″ and is essentially useless as a work surface. It currently is the perfect nook for my convection/toaster oven and barely holds the paper towel holder on the sides.
I am nothing short of a miracle worker when it comes to finding creative solutions for the lack of counter space. I use my kitchen table often for work but it is very far from the stove, I also use the open door of the aforementioned portable dishwasher but there is little room when the door is opened to access the stove or open the fridge.
Last time I made chicken parm was in my late ex’s Marin home, which was graced with lots of counter space and a mobile kitchen cart that I assembled from Pier One. In my tiny Roost kitchen I had to get quite creative to set up the breading station, so I utilized the cutting board under the convection oven (which does not fit the space and slants at a horrific angle, rendering it useless for chopping or measuring anything – thank you Mr. Landlord!). I put the egg wash on the cutting board, put flexible cutting mats inside the silverware drawer and the utility drawer that holds the wax paper and foil and balanced the pans of the dry breading mixtures in each. Another cutting mat was perched on the open door of the convection oven to receive the finished breaded chicken so it could be ferried over to the stove without dropping crumbs everywhere. The raw chicken sat on yet another flexible cutting mat on the open door of the dishwasher. Crazy, but it worked!
I had two pans going at once and used the oven racks to receive the finished crisped chicken pieces. The trick to making chicken Parmigiana so that the coating does not fall off is to place the breaded chicken in a well oiled frying pan over medium heat and not touch it. For those of you that like to poke and prod their food as it cooks you must refrain from touching or moving the chicken. If you move it and the cheese is not properly golden brown on the bottom it will tear right off and you will have chicken that looks like it has mange. Put the chicken in the pan for two to three minutes and just relax, after that time you can grab the pan and give it a vigorous shake. If the chicken moves in the pan, it is ready to be turned over. The cheese has browned and set, it has unstuck itself from the pan, and you are good to go. If it doesn’t move, it’s Not Ready. This applies to nonstick pans as well. There is no rushing when it comes to browning chicken Parm.
Once you turn over your chicken and admire the golden brown gorgeousness of it all, again you must wait until the flip side has browned sufficiently.
It took over an hour to brown the dozen pounded pieces of chicken but it was worth the time. Each piece was perfect. Since I was assembling the dish at the party location I wrapped up the chicken in foil after it cooled and transported it, the sauce and the tubs of cheese in market bags with the casserole pans and a ladle. It was a giant chicken Parm kit!
At the party about an hour before dinnertime, I heated the oven to 350, spread a couple of ladles of the tomato sauce in each casserole, added a layer of chicken, a layer of sauce and topped each one with slices of fresh mozzarella and handfuls of more Parmesan cheese. They baked for 30-45 minutes until the cheese was browned nicely on top and each casserole was bubbling with caramelized edges. They had to sit for about 15 minutes before serving so that you could cut generous squares of the finished Parm.
I was so gratified when the birthday gal took a bite, closed her eyes and said, “Mmmmmmfh, it’s just like home.”
Another dear friend and conspirator made the most delicious chocolate cupcakes with cute sprinkles and vanilla icing.
Perfection. Birthday dinner goal accomplished!