Cooking For Others: Birthday Parmigiana

EVENT: Mom’s Birthday
VENUE: Mom’s Kitchen, Riverdale
TYPE: Festive Celebratory Dinner
MENU: Chicken Parmesan; Twice-Fried French Fries; Mixed Greens with Yellow Pepper and Basil Dressing; Sweet Ricotta Tart; Prosecco
WHAT YOU’LL NEED: Stainless Steel Slotted Turner

I guess it’s not so surprising that, for my mom’s birthday this year, we decided to traffic in nostalgia rather than foodie-ism. Phoebe’s birthday featured Mini Meatball Subs and Mac and Cheese; mine was all about retro classics, too: Onion Dip, hot dogs on the grill, and bazooka bubble gum. So though things like duck confit went through my mind, in the end my sisters and I decided to make an old family dinner favorite: Chicken Parmesan.

When we ate Chicken Parm as kids, we did not eat it with garlic bread or with spaghetti. I didn’t even know it was served with such things until we started going out sometimes to a red-sauce Italian joint in Yonkers. We ate it with homemade french fries, which to me is a much better use of side-dish space than either bread or pasta.
What’s more, we ate the french fries dipped in the extra tomato sauce that had been made for the chicken. I don’t know how you feel about Chicken Parmesan, French Fries, or Tomato Sauce as a dipping sauce for said fries, but I think this is the kind of food it’s hard to feel anything but enthusiastic about. Chicken Parm is more or less a combination of pizza and chicken fingers, two meals kids everywhere are crazy about, but it’s certainly not to be scoffed at for adult palates.
Chicken Parmesan with Fries wasn’t a special meal back then, so it’s funny we chose it to be a birthday dinner now. But truthfully, these days, it’s rare that we make anything with so many steps as this, even if, with practice, I can imagine those steps can be streamlined. Though it didn’t actually take that long to make, the fact that it was involved–in addition to its sentimental value–made the Chicken Parm an ideal birthday meal.
Truthfully, it’s not the best-ever meal to make in a small kitchen. We were cooking up at my mom’s, where counter space is not quite as precious a commodity as it is in my kitchen. However, I don’t think it’s really a problem to make the chicken itself in a kitchen like mine, as long as you don’t endeavor to make the french fries as well. Serve the chicken with spaghetti, just like we never did.
From my kitchen, where birthdays turn us back towards dinners past, to yours,


Chicken Parmesan

Serves 4, with extra sauce for dipping fries

For the sauce:
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoons salt
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

For the chicken:
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/3 cup flour
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs*
1 teaspoon salt
oil for frying

For assembling the dish:
3/4 pound fresh mozzarella, cubed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
10 basil leaves

*To make fresh breadcrumbs, trim the crusts from half a baguette. Cut the insides into cubes, the process in a food processor until the cubes become crumbs.

To make the sauce, cook the onions in the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until transparent but not brown. Add the garlic just before the onions are done and cook for 2-3 minutes, letting the garlic get ever so slightly golden. Add the basil leaves, salt, and red pepper, then add the tomatoes. Cook for 30 minutes over medium heat, letting the sauce reduce slightly. This can be made ahead.

Place the chicken breasts in a sealed plastic bag. Pound them to about 1/3″ thick, using a meat pounder, rock, or other creative utensil.

Spread the flour onto a shallow plate. Crack the eggs into a bowl large enough to hold 1 chicken breast, and beat them. Combine the breadcrumbs, pepper, and salt in another shallow bowl.

To prepare the chicken breasts, one at a time, place them in the flour, turning to coat both sides. Repeat in the egg and then in the breadcrumbs. Place them on a baking sheet: you’re ready to fry.

Put a paper-towel covered plate by the stove. Heat about 3/4 inches of neutral oil in a large cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. When a breadcrumb sizzles in an oil, put in as many breaded chicken breasts as will fit without crowding. Fry for about 4-6 minutes a side, until the chicken is crispy and brown. Remove to the paper-towel lined plate and repeat with the remaining breasts.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spoon about 3/4 cup of sauce onto the bottom of an attractive 9 x 13″ baking dish (or any dish that will look nice on the table and will fit the chicken in one layer). Arrange the chicken breasts on top. Cover each with another 1/4 cup sauce, then top with a few basil leave. Add one quarter of the cheese to each piece of chicken.
Bake for 25 minutes until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted and browning in spots. (If the cheese doesn’t seem to be browning as much as you’d like, you can raise the heat on the oven.) Sprinkle on the parmesan and bake for another 5 minutes. Serve, accompanied by extra sauce and some bread, pasta, or french fries.

French Fries
Serves 4-6

4 large baking potatoes
oil–a quart or two
coarse salt

Peel the potatoes and cut them into fries–about 4″ by 1/2″ by 1/2″. Do this just when you’re ready to cook so the fries don’t brown.

Line a large bowl with paper towels. Heat the oil in a medium pot over high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add a small fry. When this fry sizzles, that means it’s time to start cooking. Turn the heat down slightly, and cook the fries in batches, depending on the size of your pot. You don’t want to overcrowd and you don’t want the oil to bubble over.

Fry each batch for about 8 minutes, until starting to crisp but still quite pale. Remove with a slotted spoon, letting as much oil as possible drip off before transferring to the towel-lined bowl. Repeat with the remaining uncooked fries.

When you’re ready to eat, repeat this process, only now the fries should cook much more quickly, and since they’ll have shrunk, you’ll be able to cook in fewer batches. Sprinkle generously with salt and serve with warmed tomato sauce (see above).

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Nadia

    This dish really reminds me of my childhood in Rhode Island. Chicken “parm” was a staple dish at my friends’ homes. Delicious and with fries, even better!

  • Maddie

    Okay, this looks incredible. I’m jealous of your childhood meals! We had a lot of uninspiring baked chicken, but I do remember some great homemade fries. Your mom must’ve had a very happy birthday!

  • kate

    So it has been about a month since we ate this, and right now, as it is POURING in the Delta, and lesson planning for school tomorrow seems endless, this is ALL I want to eat! Alas, I am still without kitchen. But, on the bright side, my lease for my first house starts on July 15, and I cannot wait to make this. It will definitely be among the first dishes I make in my new home (especially because it is my favorite dish from my childhood home!) This is making me extra nostalgic, but the memories are almost fuel enough to keep me going…

  • Shaq223

    I am a beginner when it comes to cooking. Im 19 and recently just purchased my first home. Without mom i have to now cook for myself. This story is basically being told for me to express the simplicity of creating this meal. Realistically this is one of the best meals ive ever eaten in my life. Extremely delicious, very easy to make, has made me a die hard fan for the website.

    • BGSK

      This is so heartwarming! Glad the dish was great and happy to have you as a fan!

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