When the recipe is always right, even when wrong: Chicken Piccata

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Do you remember your first dish that worked? Worked, as in people raved about it and wanted it again? Worked, as in you tucked that little recipe into your mental rolodex knowing you'd be making in the future? I have one of those.

Last year I wrote about my first cookbook and its impact on me. It was The Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith in paperback. Today it sits proudly on my recipe book shelf, and I refer to its tattered and yellowed pages often. The Lamb and Eggplant remains in my repertoire and his Chinese Boiled Chicken was where I got the idea to begin making my own stock.

Unfortunately, Mr. Smith, also a minister, was mired in a touch of controversy involving his church and young men (he was never charged with a crime). He left public life in some form of disgrace but in my defense, I was cooking his food long before this indiscretion. In any case, The Frugal Gourmet was my first real guide to the kitchen. I used it not only to cook but to begin exploring my own culinary combinations. Several of my original kitchen success stories were inspired by his recipes. And though it's been a while, I found myself pulling it out the other day. You see, Jeff taught me to make Chicken Picatta (Piccata is Italian for sharp). Not only did he teach me to do that, but my friends raved about it. So for about the last 20 years, I have been making this dish on and off, perhaps with a slight twist but fairly true to my original success.

Well, imagine my surprise when my mother told me I was doing it wrong. I was appalled that she could even suggest this. How could something I have served probably more than any single dish be wrong? "There are no onions in Chicken Piccata", she said. I argued back that there most certainly were. This discussion lasted a few minutes. I was prompted to open my laptop and do a recipe search for Chicken Piccata. I was at her house and did not have my book for reference. Sure enough, my search revealed that ALL of the recipes I perused had no onions (although some used green onions as a garnish).

Well, my reaction fell short of becoming ill, but I was disturbed to say the least. Did Smith's original recipe evolve in my mind to include onions? After all, I'd been doing it from memory for over 10 years. Have I been serving a dish that would upset most Italian purists? Have I been masking the bright lemony flavors that should come through in a Chicken Piccatta? Arriving home, I was vindicated to find that the original recipe called for onions in Mr. Smith's cookbook. While that solved one problem, though I still felt I had perpetrated a fraud by passing his recipe off as a true Chicken Piccata. Then, with little fanfare... I got over it. After all, my version was delicious with the flavors of lemon and those briny little capers. I also used more broth than my mom or the other recipes suggested. So, my version tends to have more liquid that I have always found perfect for a side of rice or potatoes. Again, more artistic liberty.

This just proves that one of my basic cooking tenets is alive and well. Recipes and cookbooks are guides, not rulebooks. If you enjoy onions, add onions. Garlic? No problem. Mushrooms your thing? Try some. I have now made several variations of this Piccata and I'll share the one I like best. It turns out that I compromised with my mom. While I did keep the broth levels higher (because I like it that way) I took out the onions (but added some leeks). The onion flavor was muted but present giving the lemon more star power. This worked for me. Another trick that'll save you huge time is to buy the little skinless boneless cutlets or chicken finger strips. Traditionally, you are supposed to pound the whole breasts into thin submission. While I do find this changes the texture and tenderizes the meat a bit, it's a pain and adds prep time. Cutlets work great.

Whatever your take on this classic turns out to be, just follow one rule: Have fun with it. Here is my recipe.

Chicken Piccata

serves 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 leak, white and pale green parts only, well cleaned and thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, crushed or thinly sliced

2 pounds chicken breasts sliced into thin cutlets (you could use 4 chicken breasts and a kitchen mallet to thinly pound, but the cutlets are easier)

1 cup flour

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons white wine or dry sherry

Juice and zest from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons capers

1/4 cup chicken stock

8 thin lemon slices

2 tablespoons chopped parsley for garnish

1. I use my cast iron for this because it heats so evenly. Your pan should be large enough to hold all of the ingredients together at the end. Sauté the leek and garlic in the olive oil until just tender. Remove from the pan and set aside.

2. Season the chicken and the flour with salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken in the flour and shake off excess. Add the butter to the already hot pan that the leeks and garlic cooked in. Once melted, brown the chicken in batches and don't overcrowd the pan. Chicken does not need to cook all the way through yet. Set chicken aside.

3. Deglaze the pan by adding the wine or sherry. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the lemon and zest. Place the chicken, leeks and garlic back in the pan, add capers and stock and top with the lemon slices. Cover and heat over medium low for 10 minutes. Garnish with parsley.

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