Being Sicilian-American, I grew up eating breaded chicken cutlets (and veal and other meats, I think). It was a staple of family gatherings alongside squid, fresh tomato salad and other seasonal, simple food.
One of my most vivid memories from my childhood is from a visit we made to New York for my cousin Josephine’s wedding when I was around 10 or 11, I think. We flew People’s Express (my first flying experience) and I spent a lot of time in the back of a station wagon going from upstate New York to Brooklyn/Queens where my relatives lived. Josephine’s mother is my Aunt Mary and I remember one day going to her house in Brooklyn (I think) and learning how to make cutlets with her. She taught me this recipe, although I’ve adapted it in the years since. I remember her giving me explicit instructions about using one hand to do the ‘wet’ part of the coating and another to do the ‘dry’ part so that your hands didn’t get as messy (she wore a giant ring and had perfect nails – so she was probably also trying to keep her hands perfect). Years later, my father taught me how to cook them again when I worked in his restaurant.
One of the adaptations I’ve made over the years is to include lemon zest in the breading, which I think freshens the taste up a bit. It isn’t something I cook very often because it is fried, but because they cook quickly they aren’t nearly as heavy as they might sound. Here is my attempt at a recipe for this (and apologies for the lack of quantities in some cases…I cook this from instinct):
- 2 cups breadcrumbs (non seasoned)
- 1 cup parmesan or romano cheese
- fresh parsley
- 2 cloves garlic
- herbs of your choice (I usually use oregano and basil – dried is fine)
- 2 lemons
- 4 boneless chicken breasts
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 eggs
- Slice the chicken breasts in half horizontally so that you have two thin chicken breast pieces for each piece you bought. Cover these pieces with cling film and pound these as thin as you can without breaking them apart using a rolling pin. Rinse them and pat them dry (they need to be totally dry).
- Mix about two cups breadcrumbs, one cup parmesan, two cloves finely minced garlic, one-two teaspoons of lemon zest, salt/pepper to taste (won’t need much salt as the parmesan is salty), two-three tablespoons of chopped parsley and two-three tablespoons of herb of choice in a bowl. This is the breading.
- Put about a cup of flour into a separate dish and add salt and pepper.
- In a third dish put two eggs and a half a cup of milk. Scramble the eggs well.
- Dip each chicken piece in the flour (shaking off any excess), then the egg mixture, then the breadcrumb mixture. Set these aside.
- Heat vegetable/sunflower oil in a pan that is at least two-three inches deep (I use a standard cast iron pan). Make sure you have enough oil to be able to submerge the chicken (yes, that is a lot of oil).
- Get the oil to a medium heat. It should not be smoking; if it is, it’s too hot. A few drops of water should pop when dropped into the oil.
- Slip each piece of breaded chicken into the oil and cook for a few minutes on each side. You’ll know its done when the breadcrumbs are a nice golden/dark brown. Since they are so thin, they don’t cook long.
- When you take the chicken out of the oil, put them on a dish with paper towels on them…to soak up the oil.
- serve with lemon wedges.
This is tasty with a simple pasta as a side (with marinara or with a butter and garlic sauce). When I visit my Aunt Mary in Florida these days I always request that she makes them for me and we eat them cold. I don’t know if she remembers that she taught me how to make them or not, but I always think hers taste much better than mine. Maybe it is just nostalgia or maybe her years of experience cooking include adaptations that she hasn’t shared with me!