In some ways I feel like I could tell my life’s story through the breaded chicken cutlet.
It started with my mother: Mom could make a chicken cutlet. Crispy, golden, never overcooked. When I was growing up, she’d serve them with sautéed garlicky zucchini wedges. I’d slap the cold leftovers on a baguette with a slather of mayo. No one could replicate it. Then, when I was in fourth grade, Mom decided she wanted to master more in life than pan-fried poultry. She headed to law school at night and joined a practice four years later. Three nights a week, while she was out learning about torts and civil procedure, my dad was in charge of the kitchen. And, since his great enthusiasm for eating never seemed to translate to actually learning how to cook, my mom decided to teach him some basics … including making those breaded chicken cutlets.
He learned them, he cooked them. Three nights a week. For four years. A long four years. I never wanted to eat another one — until college, when I decided to make my boyfriend (now husband) dinner. My repertoire, it turned out, was as varied as my dad’s had been, and my skills considerably worse. On that romantic March evening in 1993, we popped open a couple microbrews, turned on some Seinfeld, and sat down to the rubberiest chicken dinner ever served.
Fifteen years later, with kids in the equation, I have been forced to master the meal. Not only out of respect to Grandma, but because, like all moms, I was forced to compete with the omnipresent twin evils: The Chicken Nugget and The Chicken Finger.
When Phoebe was little, we regularly fed her the packaged, pre-breaded nuggets. This was 2002, before I developed any sort of opinion about the provenance of my meat and before it ever dawned on me that I might be able to actually cook homemade meals for her. Since I headed into the “two under two” phase soon after, the idea of setting up dredging stations after work and serving homemade cutlets to toddlers, who were 99% likely to reject them was downright hilarious. But, man, those dinosaur shaped nuggets? We didn’t have to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma to know that they just weren’t right.
So we did what we’ve done probably two dozen times since. We embarked upon a baby-step transition, using Trader Joe’s Chicken Bites as a homemade halfway house. Though the T-Joes nuggets were not 100% natural either, there were fewer additives and, more important, they had a similar shape to the ones we had been eating, minimizing our risk of a tableside revolt. Only when we were really ready did we start experimenting with the chicken that might compete. Eventually, I struck on this magic formula.
1. Pound the living hell out of four organic boneless, skinless chicken breasts. (Do not bother continuing with this recipe if you skip this step.)
2. Set up your dredging stations: a rimmed plate with two lightly beaten eggs, a plate with a mound of 3/4 cup flour (salted, peppered, and dry mustard-ed if you have it), a plate with a huge mound of Kellogg’s Corn Flake Crumbs. Toss in some ground flax if you have it.
3. Dredge your chicken pieces first in the flour, then in the egg, then in the crumbs.
4. Sauté each breast in olive oil over medium-high heat for about 3 to 4 minutes a side. Serve hot with garlicky sautéed zucchini (recipe below), broccolini and roasted butternut squash (shown above), or just a big, huge dollop of ketchup.
1. Cut two pieces of zucchini in half lengthwise, then split each half in half, and each quarter in half lengthwise. Cut into wedges.
2. In a frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add one clove of garlic (halved) and swirl it around in the oil. Remove garlic before it turns brown, about one minute.
3. Add zucchini wedges, salt, pepper, and sprinkle of flour. (If you are making chicken cutlets, use some of the leftover dredging flour.)
4. Mix every few minutes until zucchini is cooked through and has a nice golden color, about 3 to 4 minutes.