Screen shot 2011-06-12 at 11.25.32 PM

On Chicken Piccata

 

Bucatini is a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a tiny hole in the center.

There are lots of ways to ruin (or just complicate) chicken piccata: garlic, white wine, or peperoncino (red pepper flakes) to name a few.

The word piccata in Italian means an irritation or offense, and such ingredients can do just that to this subtle dish. Nowadays in Italy, the word piccata has also come to reference the dish, there usually made with veal.   To me the most appealing of the word’s purported origins is as an Italianization of the French piqué, meaning something like “stung” in English, a possible reference to the unexpected (and delightful) bite of the lemon when the dish is made properly.

It is part of the magic of a blog that when readers write in, you can add to the post and blithely fail to credit the commenter (sorry Stephen M.).  So it goes in this paragraph, where I now (and newly) mention the occasionally served menu-pun “chicken peccata mundi,” a dish so good it purports to take away the sins of the world.  It apparently does at Angelina’s Restaurant in West Seattle.  Yes Angel-ina’s.   Hopefully there is never a lamb version.

As for the secular chicken piccata, here’s how to do it right.  I developed this recipe from my mother’s version, which involves few measurements but is, of course, excellent.

Recipe: Chicken Piccata with Bucatini

Summary: The best version of an Italian-American classic.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound organic, boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded to 1/2 inch flat
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup capers (preferably nonpareil), rinsed
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon corn starch
  • 1/2 pound imported Italian bucatini (pasta)
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper, freshly ground
  • Semolina flour (sufficient to dredge chicken)

Instructions

  1. Cook the bucatini in plenty of salted water, about 10 minutes (or as directed on the package). Set aside.
  2. Salt and pepper the flattened chicken thighs to taste, and dredge in semolina flour.
  3. Heat the olive oil and butter a large, deep skillet (say, 14 inches x 3 inches) over medium high heat until the butter has melted.
  4. Place the chicken thighs in the pan, and cook 3 minutes or until one side is brown. Lower the heat to medium high.
  5. Turn the chicken in the pan, and brown the other side (about 3 minutes).
  6. Remove the chicken, and set aside.
  7. Pour half the liquid (chicken stock and lemon juice) into the pan. Deglaze (scrape all the browned bits into the liquid) for one minute.
  8. Add the rest of the liquid, the cherry tomatoes, and the capers. Reduce the liquid for about 5 minutes, until somewhat thick.  Add a bit of the corn starch for thickness if desired.
  9. Turn the heat up to high.  Add the pasta to the pan, and stir or toss with tongs for 3 minutes.
  10. Turn off the heat, add the parsley and give a quick stir.  Serve with a good, dry white wine.

Preparation time: 15 minutesCooking time: 15 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 3

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

Rosettes, other cookies, and the Italian-American Christmas

Each year, for Christmas, my mother makes rosettes. Rosettes have only 5 ingredients, yet they are nearly impossible to make. The recipe (if there were a standard one) is different for each particular oven. Timing when combining and mixing the ingredients is so critical that a single minute in either direction before cooking can result in collapsed, inedible discs after cooking.

Even if you manage them to bake the rosettes correctly (congratulations), frosting the cookies is another gauntlet. Frost too early, and the hot cookie will ruinously liquify the frosting. Frost too late, and the cold, hardened frosting will rip the cookie apart as you spread. About 30 seconds separates these two states, so make sure to frost each cookie as it comes out of the oven individually. What fun!

Additionally, the process often fails, partially or completely, for no discernible reason. Witness my 10-year-old niece (the assistant cook) crying over a suddenly and inexplicably gluified mass that cannot be extracted from the mixing bowl.

In short, rosettes are the perfect holiday cookie.

Growing up in our small Italian-immigrant community, I had always believed the traditional set of holiday cookies (wand, pizzelle, dischi, rosettes, taralle …) were the pinnacle of taste and artistry in Italian baking. It seemed that, as such, these marvels of taste-as-pleasure should be enjoyed at most once a year (imagine you are Catholic and this might make sense).

Now I know the truth. The rosettes, for example, are good but are simply one cookie-type. There are certainly many easier-to-make, better-tasting, and festive Italian cookies that come out wonderfully for the first-time maker. Why make rosettes, wand, dischi, and the other half-dozen Italian-American Christmas traditionals?

Making rosettes is a yearly trial for even the most experienced cook. It took my mother (a rosette expert) two discarded batches this Christmas to produce an acceptable third batch of rosettes. The first was destroyed by the Northeastern ice storm that cut her electricity in mid-bake. A few days later, the second batch was flattened by a forced substitution of butter for margarine due to closed roads between her and the supermarket. (butter can collapse the rosettes)

Ok. Why even try? Isn’t there a toll house recipe somewhere on the Food Network web site?

Each Italian woman in my family (or naturalized-Italian wife) has a specific cookie she makes every year. In most cases the same cookie her mother (or mother-in-law) made. The arcane subtlety of preparation that results in an acceptable cookie is passed down from mother to daughter through years of pre-adolescent cookie-bonding in the kitchen.

The tradition is the desired result, the cookie is a side-effect.

With this in mind, I give you a full year to try to master the rosette. My mother’s recipe is below, with her quite valuable but certainly incomplete advice unedited in parentheses.

Ironically, the most colossal failures provide the best memories. Who can forget the 2001 rosettes when she accidentally added salt instead of sugar. Miraculously the right shape, a few rosettes were grabbed by 6-year-old Sarah before anyone else could taste them. Every year, we do an impressions of little Sarah’s shocked face: “Aaack! They don’t taste right!”

Brave readers, let us know how you do.

Rosettes

3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tbsp vanilla (some people use anise)
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine (don’t use butter)

mix to medium softness
shape into balls (use a spoon and flour your hands)
place on a greased sheet pan
bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes

frosting
mix confectioners sugar and milk. keep a fairly stiff consistency. dip or spread (and add sprinkles immediately or frosting will harden).