Saturday, March 10, 2007

Recipe: Chicken Gismondo a la TJ

This chicken dish is guaranteed to leave your palette humming mellow airs from Tuscany while you sip a strong nutty flavored coffee after dinner. It is not really difficult to prepare, but does take some practice to get the timing down (and of course, everything must come to the table in one fell swoop). These photos show a batch of three servings. I've never been able to master more than four servings at a time (though I've tried 6, 8 and 12). Perhaps if you've got 8 burners on the stove and 16" or 20" skillets, you might be able to do it. In any case . . .

here's what you'll need . . .

boneless, skinless breast of chicken, one per serving
seasoned flour (see below)
breadcrumbs (toasted if you make your own)
grated Parmesan cheese (fine grate if you make your own; if you don't, do so!)
eggs, 1 per two servings, 2 for up to six, room temperature!
FRESH spinach, 1 ten oz. package per person (this dish will not work with canned, frozen, or otherwise mutilated spinach)
FRESH mushrooms, ½ pound per 2 servings (as above re mutilation)
FRESH lemon juice, ½ lemon per 2 servings (as above re mutilation)
ground nutmeg (fresh would be fantastic, but ordinary off-the-shelf will suffice)
butter, 1½ sticks (if you can't handle that, you can use olive oil flavored with some butter - see below. Don't use margarine; it will taste terrible.)
pasta, wide egg noodles, or your choice

Here's how you do it.

Start with the spinach. Now a 10 oz. bag may claim to serve 3, but that's simply hooey. By the time it's cooked, a 10 oz. bag of spinach yields a couple/three tablespoons of vegetable. If you want to minimize something on your plate, cut your protein serving size by half or your starch; not the vegetables!

Chicken Gismondo ingredients

So, anyway, a couple hours before it's time to cook, soak the spinach in cold water. Even though the package may claim "washed," it's not. Drain and refill the water at least twice before it's time to cook.

Wash that spinach!

And while the spinach is soaking, pick it over removing any scummy leaves, and all the thick stems. You want to serve this dish on a bed of spinach leaves.

Pick out the naughty bits

Sometime before you're ready to cook, slice the mushrooms (relatively thinly, you want them to cook up quickly),

Slice them shrooms

squeeze (and de-seed) the lemon juice (use a fork – a strainer eliminates all the good pulp),

Lemon squeeze!

and prepare the seasoned flour and the bread crumb mixture.

To make seasoned flour (about 1.5 Tbsp. needed per serving of chicken), spread the flour out in one pile about as big in area as all the chicken breasts. The idea is to get a level pile, not a peaked mountain. Sprinkle a little salt over the surface (think in terms of a layer of salt about 1 salt crystal deep covering the pile.)

Salty flour

Then pepper the surface of the flour until it is black - not occasional specks of black, but the whole surface is pretty black. (If you like an extra little bit of flavor in your foods, add a pinch of ground cayenne to the flour mixture – up to about 1/3 tsp. for this much flour.)

Pepper the salty flour

Mix it all together and you have seasoned flour appropriate for this recipe.

Now the flour is seasoned!

Mix the breadcrumbs


with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Pile on the cheese

The mixture should be about half and half, though you can adjust to taste if you must. Less cheese and the flavor tends to fade; more cheese tends to melt and burn when you sauté. Do not use the typical green can combo of Parmesan and Romano. The Romano tends to turn bitter in this recipe.

Now it's cheesy used-to-be-bread

By the way, if you’re like me, you’ll find it impossible not to end up with three times as much seasoned flour and/or breadcrumb mixture as you need. For years I cried each time I threw out an extra cup or two of either one. Then, one day, in flash of blinding insight unmatched since Galileo’s times, the solution appeared. Dump your mixtures into bowls! Pour, spoon, shimmer and shake from the bowl to the food and simply save the leftover mixtures! Only took me 30 years . . .

About 30 minutes before you want to serve, start the cooking. Put the spinach in a large covered saucepan. DO NOT add water. Just pick the spinach out of the soaking water by the handful, give it a good hard shake to remove excess water, and cram it into the pan.

Squish that spinach

You should be able to cram three or four 10 oz. pkgs. into a 4 qt. saucepan. Push it down hard enough so the lid fits tightly.

Don't you be lifting that lid

When it's time to cook the spinach, the water adhering to the leaves will provide plenty of moisture, and the tight fitting lid will keep the steam in the pan.

Start heating the pasta water.

Gently beat an egg or two with a Tbsp. or two of water till it's evenly lemon colored – no froth here, just mix it up. One egg will handle two servings, two eggs up to five, maybe six.

Lemony colored egg wash

Dredge each chicken breast in seasoned flour. If you're doing a bunch, do them in groups of three or four. You don't want the chicken to sit around coated with flour for more than a few minutes. The flour will absorb moisture from the chicken and that will mess up the rest of the coating.

Assemble the beasts

Dip the floured chicken in the beaten eggs. Don't wash the flour off, but try to get a good coating of egg all over the chicken.

Dredge the eggy chicken in the mixture of breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Press, push, pound, whatever to get a good even complete coating of the crumbs on the chicken. Waxed paper makes an excellent working surface for this step because you can lift and flip (gently! gently!) to get the crumbs all over, and press with the paper, reducing the goo build-up on your hands.

Toss the chicken immediately into the hot butter. (As above, you don't want to let the coated chicken sit around long.) What hot butter you ask?

Somewhere around the time you're ready to dip the chicken in the eggs, start heating a large skillet. Cut about ¾ stick of butter into little pats (so they'll melt quickly when you toss them into the pan.) Just before you're ready to sauté the first load of chicken, toss the pats of butter into the pan. They should jump and sizzle and melt instantly, but stop just short of turning brown (burned butter tastes terrible.)

Chicken Gismondo cooking

If you can't handle the butter, use olive oil. You'll need enough to cover the bottom of the skillet about 1/8" deep. Please add at least 1 Tbsp. of butter to the oil. The butter flavor is important to the overall effect of the dish. Again, be sure to get the pan good and hot before putting the oil in. Swirl the oil, then add the butter, and wait for the butter froth to subside a bit before adding the chicken.

Sauté the chicken in the butter over pretty high heat (just shy of burned butter) until golden brown. Golden brown is the color of a good pancake, or crunchy white toast. Don't worry if it tends toward brown. For this dish, it's better to err in the direction of over-browned than under-browned. Turn the chicken once. It should take about 5 minutes a side to brown it.

Chicken Gismondo browned

When you toss the chicken in, turn the spinach pan on high heat. The pasta water should be boiling, so toss in the pasta. Turn on a skillet for the mushrooms, toss another ½ stick of butter into the pan, swirl it till it melts and toss in the mushrooms. (Or use olive oil as above.)

By the time the chicken is done, everything else should be ready, too. But if not, you can keep the chicken warm in a 200° F oven for up to 10 minutes with no harm done.

To serve, drain the spinach,

Drain the spinach

toss in the remaining ¼ stick butter, the lemon juice and at least ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg. Or a little more if fresh.

Grate fresh nutmeg

More nutmeg is good to a point, but too much turns bitter. About ¼ tsp. per original 10 oz. pkg. of spinach is safe. Toss the spinach about to coat evenly with the lemon-butter-nutmeg sauce.

Mix with lemon butter and nutmeg

Drain the pasta. Make a ring of pasta around the edge of each plate. Fill the hole in the center with a serving of spinach. Top the spinach with a chicken breast. Slather mushrooms over it all.

Chicken Gismondo assembly

And eat immediately.

Chicken Gismondo served

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