My latest mock draft is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat this afternoon to discuss it. I also appeared on the Dbacks Insider podcast (direct link to mp3) with my friend and former colleague Steve Berthiaume to talk about the Dbacks’ options at the first pick.
A friend of mine confessed to me recently that he’s completely incompetent in the kitchen – a “(grade) 20 cook,” in his terms, and asked me for a suggestion on a book or even a few go-to recipes for someone with kids who wants to learn how to cook. I made a few suggestions from my cookbook recommendations post, but was thinking about the most basic, extensible meal I make that most kids would like. The answer kind of came from my own childhood, even though I’ve modified the recipe from the way my mom made them: chicken cutlets. Here’s my recipe, written and explained for someone who has as much experience as a cook as Craig Counsell and Dan Jennings had as managers.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are derided by most chefs, for good reason – they have no taste of their own (unless you’re buying heirloom or pasture-raised birds), and because the meat is so lean, it dries out very quickly. Most cooking methods do more damage than good, as the protection provided by the skin and bone is lost. You can marinate it in something strong (citrus works well, like orange-garlic-soy) and grill it, but you almost have to undercook it and let carryover finish. But chicken breast meat fries beautifully, especially if you break the breasts down into a more amenable shape.
Chicken cutlets are thinly sliced pieces of breast meat, ideally pounded slightly to give them even thickness. I season them, dip them in beaten egg, and then press them into panko bread crumbs before pan-frying them. They require no particular skill and no specialized equipment. You don’t even have to measure anything.
Most good supermarkets sell chicken breasts already sliced into cutlets, and any butcher should do that for you on request. If you have a good chef’s knife and a steady hand, you can buy boneless skinless breasts and cut them into cutlets yourself; it’s a horizontal cut, parallel to the cutting board, and therefore more dangerous than most knife cuts you’ll undertake. I typically get three cutlets from a half breast, two the length of the breast half and one smaller one sliced off the top. However you get your cutlets, you want to pound any thicker parts out so that each cutlet is as close as possible to a uniform thickness. I have a metal mallet for this, but a ceramic custard cup or even flat-bottomed mug or glass will work too (cover the meat with plastic wrap before pounding). If you buy whole breasts, however, make sure you pull off the tenderloins, the narrow pieces on the underside of the breasts. You can cook them as you would the cutlets, but you have to do it separately.
Season each cutlet liberally with salt (preferably coarse) and pepper. You can add other seasonings if you’d like; paprika works well, including smoked Spanish paprika, as does cumin. Michael Ruhlman has a similar recipe in his book Egg where he coats the cutlets with Dijon mustard before they hit the egg wash, but I haven’t tried this yet. Any dried spice will work well here because it will get to bloom when hitting the hot oil.
Now set up your assembly line. In a wide-bottomed bowl, beat two eggs until well combined, as if you were going to scramble them, adding a pinch of salt before you beat them. Take a dinner plate and spread a layer of panko bread crumbs over it – you can use other bread crumbs but panko gives a superior texture.
For the cooking vessel, I use a 12-inch cast-iron skillet; both iron and oil are poor conductors of heat but excellent insulators, so once hot, they’ll hold their heat well. You can use any skillet or saute pan that is deep enough to keep the oil from splashing or spilling over the sides. Pour about ½ inch of oil into the skillet – olive oil is the best for flavor, but anything would work, even shortening or duck fat or beef tallow if that’s how you roll although I admit I’ve never tried the last two – and heat it over medium to medium-high heat until you can see the surface of the oil shimmering and perhaps even catch a wisp of smoke. (It’s about 350 degrees F.)
Once the oil is at temperature, you’ll need to work quickly, so you want all of that setup ready before you turn on the stove. Take each cutlet, dip it in the egg wash, hold it up for a few seconds to let the excess drip back into the bowl, then press each side into the bread crumbs. Lay it gently in the pan – don’t let it drop unless you enjoy getting hot oil all over you. You should hear sizzling immediately; if you don’t, the oil isn’t hot enough. Fit no more than three cutlets in the pan at once, often stopping at two, because each cutlet you add drops the oil temperature, and crowding the pan will result in the chicken steaming rather than frying. If the oil is at the right temperature, the cutlets will require about two minutes per side; at 90 seconds, check by lifting up a corner with tongs or a spatula, flipping them (gently!) if the bread crumbs are a deep golden brown.
Tongs are ideal, but if you use a spatula, the safe way to flip anything in a saute pan or skillet is to use a fork or second spatula on the other (raw) side to hold it up against the first spatula. Just don’t confuse the utensils: Once something has touched raw chicken, it can’t touch anything that’s cooked.
When you remove the cooked cutlets from the skillet, you have two options. If you’re serving them immediately, move each cutlet to a plate lined with paper towels to drain off some of the excess oil, then serve. You can also hold them in a warm (200 F) oven on a sheet pan if you need to wait a half-hour or so before serving. They keep well as leftovers; reheat them in a 350 degree oven rather than the microwave to restore the crispness of the exterior. One serving suggestion of many: Top them with fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, and some crushed red pepper and serve them on a crusty baguette.