Last week, I described how to make easy and cheap marinara sauce with ingredients you probably already have around the house. With that base, you can now combine it with chicken, cheese, and some other simple ingredients to make an economical meal for 4-6 in the form of chicken parmesan.
Step one is to buy boneless and skinless chicken parts. Here, I used chicken breasts, but thighs will also work. Usually, I would recommend thighs for most chicken dishes and also bone-in, but chicken parmesan is an exception. Personally, I think that this is one of the few applications where the texture of white meat is superior to the flavor of dark.
Prepping the Chicken
For this recipe, I needed three breast pieces of chicken, which are actually three half-breasts. The package had five breast pieces, and pictured below are four. In the end, I only needed the three to make six individual servings. The total cost for five breasts was about $9.00 at $3.00 per pound. In the end, only about two pounds were used, so that comes to a little less than $6.00 for the meat. I usually get my meat at our local Kroger, and I can usually find it on sale for $2 a pound, which would make it even less expensive.
Next, the breasts need to be flattened. This is best done in a ziplock bag and a meat mallet using the flat side. Alternatively, you can use a French-style rolling pin to pound them flat. Remember to pound and not roll them and don’t use the ones with a handle through the middle. Eventually, they should each be a consistent 1/2 inch thick or a little less.
The breasts should each be huge. At this point, I cut them in half to make manageable single-serving portions. I wanted to make this for four people, so I really only needed 6 cut-in-half pieces to give a little extra for second helpings. With the extra two pieces, I made breaded chicken filets sandwiches for lunch the next day.
Next, I seasoned the half breast pieces with salt and pepper and let them sit on a cooling tray inside a baking pan for about 30 minutes. This not only let them come up in temperature before cooking, it allowed the salt to penetrate the flesh. Salt is important for flavor and without it, breasts are notoriously flavorless.
While those were resting, I prepared two pie dishes with the breading components. In one was an egg wash that consisted of just egg and a teaspoon of water, beaten until it was uniform. The other pie plate had a breading mixture of a cup and a half of Italian bread crumbs, a teaspoon of garlic powder, a teaspoon of Hungarian paprika, and a half cup of grated parmesan. Combine those ingredients with a whisk or fork. If you like more flavor, feel free to double the garlic and paprika.
If you like crispier chicken, substitute the regular bread crumbs for panko. You can also do a mixture of the two.
Before dipping the patties into the egg, they need to be coated lightly with about a third cup of flour.
My favorite way of coating them is with a sifter on the same pan they have been resting upon.
Sift flour over all the pieces (remember we are only going to use six of them) and shake off the excess. Then, flip them over and do the other side.
Let them sit for a little and the coating will turn to a translucent paste. This will allow the breading to bind better than if you put them with dry flour on the surface. Once they are ready, dipped them into the egg wash and coat both sides. Next, drain the excess off the surface and place it into the bread crumb mixture.
Sprinkle some of the breading mixture on top and push with a fork into the bread crumbs below. Then, flip the piece over and put the other side into the mixture. The action of pushing the filet down into the bread crumbs will help them adhere better and result in an even coating.
Remove each piece and shake off excess crumbs. Place them back into the resting tray.
Browning the Pieces
Next, heat up two tablespoons of olive oil in your favorite large skillet. I used a stainless steel one for this, but a coated pan will work as well. Use medium-high heat.
Make sure the pan is up to temperature. 350 degrees is the best temperature, but if you don’t have a thermometer, flick a very small drop of water into the pan and it should immediately sizzle and evaoprate. Be sure it is small, or it will pop and make a mess. Alternatively, you can put a filet into the oil and it should also sizzle immediately. If it doesn’t, the pan is not hot enough. If you see smoke, the oil is too hot and you should either reduce the heat or use it immediately.
Never crowd a pan when sauteeing. For a large pan, you should be able to do half of the six filets at a time. Cook them for two minutes on each side and they should be a rich golden brown. If they aren’t cook a little longer until the desired color and crispiness is reached. Remember, these will be going in the oven, so don’t cook them completely through, we just want color and exterior texture. If you dry out the chicken, your chicken parmesan will not be as good.
Putting it Together
If you made the easy and cheap marinara recipe, use that to line a standard baking dish (glass is fine as well). If not, open a 26 oz jar of your favorite or make your own marinara recipe.
Place the partially cooked breasts into the sauce in a single layer. Trim them if they don’t fit. Keep them in a single layer with a little space so you don’t overcrowd.
Coat the top of each piece with your cheeses of choice. Here, I used three half slices of provolone, about a half cup of mozzarella, and a quarter cup of shredded parmesan. Provolone is best if you only use one cheese, but this step is more of an art than a science. Do what you like, just don’t use fat-free cheese, I won’t allow it.
Place your chicken parmesan into a preheated 425F oven. It is important that it has come up to temperature completely because we want it to brown without overcooking the breast. Check it after 15 minutes to see if it is browned. If you want to be scientific, measure the temperature of the breasts with an instant-read thermometer. Some people want to be absolutely safe with chicken, but 165F will ruin the texture and make for a dry entree. I always stop breasts that are cooking the oven at 150F and with carryover heat, they will usually finish at 155F. At this temperature, there is still moisture left in the breast, and in my opinion, it is still perfectly safe.
When I cook them in a sous vide immersion cooker, I will stop them at 145F, but an oven is not as exact and you cannot hold the temperature there for an hour or more like you can in an immersion environment. None of this advice applies to thighs, however, as they have more fat and connective tissue and are great at 165F.
When plating, I like to add a little of the sauce on top. Other recipes layer sauce on the chicken, but I think that just makes the chicken soggy and doesn’t allow the cheese to stick to the piece. This is excellent with garlic toast and can be great on spaghetti, using the excess sauce for the noodles. For this recipe of chicken parmesan, the total cost was around $9-10 for a cost per serving of $1.50-$1.75. Add in some sides and a family of four can eat dinner for about $12 and perhaps have some leftovers for lunch the next day.
In a restaurant, four servings of chicken parmesan with sides could easily be run $40-60.