Saturday, February 27, 2016

Baked Chicken Parmigiana

During busy weeks, I scrap my proclivity towards making new, intriguing dinner recipes and inevitably resort to the tried-and-trued meals I know by heart. Because I eat these easy, basic, and quick meals multiple times a month, I take comfort in my familiarity with them, claiming a sort of protective ownership because they're committed to memory.

So I was puzzled when I noticed that one of my favorite regulars, Baked Chicken Parmigiana, was not on the blog—and oversight, I guess, but that's okay because I get to share it today! From easy weeknight dinner to Valentines Day feature, this dish runs the gamut on the occasion front. The reason is simple: no matter when you make it, it's delicious and comforting and feels like home.

This dish is a way healthier version of your standard chicken parm—fried breaded cutlets, fistfuls of mozzarella cheese, and heaps of pasta will not be found here. But what you will find is that the integrity of the dish is wholly preserved—it's not one of those things you roll your eyes at, nod that it's healthy, and never eat again. Rather, the dish incorporates slight tweaks for a lighter distinctiveness, substituting zucchini noodles for pasta, egg whites for egg yolk, whole-wheat baked crackers for deep-fried breading, and scant shredded Parmesan cheese for heavy mozzarella.

And yet, it remains sooo darn good. Why? The secret is a good tomato sauce. No skimping here, I recommend Antica Cucina Arrabbiata—at $7.99 a jar, it's certainly pricey, but the high quality ingredients and lack of added sugar/ low sodium content make the splurge unequivocally worthwhile.

Of course you can make the dish with regular pasta (I recommend whole-wheat spaghetti if you do), but here's the thing—I actually like it better with the zoodles. There's something about the softened, verdant noodles, enhanced simply with a quick sauté of olive oil, salt & pepper, that works seamlessly with the acidic, spicy sauce. Another pleasant surprise is the depth that the multigrain crackers add to the chicken's breading, providing the requisite crunch but a whole grain pop, too.

Of note: Martha Stewart's original recipe calls for a homemade tomato sauce, but in the interest of time and to keep this guy a front runner in the "easy weeknight dinner" category, I always use jarred. By now I have this dish memorized, so I time each step in sync with the oven: During preheating, I blend the breading, while the chicken crisps, I spiralize the zoodles, and during the final bake, I pan-sauté the zoodles, plating them into individual bowls right when the oven timer goes off. Dinner, done and done!

Baked Chicken Parmigiana (loosely adapted from Martha Stewart Living)
Serves 4

1 cup baked whole-grain wheat crackers (I prefer Kashi Original 7 Grain Snack Crackers)
1/3 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley + extra for garnish
½ teaspoon dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 25 oz can tomato sauce (I like Antica Cucina Arrabbiata, choose one with no sugar added and low sodium)
2 large egg whites
4 small or 3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1½ to 1¾ lb)
½ cup shredded Parmesan
3 zucchinis, spiralized into noodles
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
Hot red pepper flakes

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Pulse crackers, parsley, oregano, and a dash of salt and pepper in a food processor or blender until finely ground. Transfer to a plate.
2. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with foil, and coat lightly with olive oil via mister. In a small bowl, whisk egg whites.  Dip each chicken breast in egg whites to fully coat; let excess drip off. Dredge chicken in crumb mixture, lightly pressing, to coat both sides.
3. Transfer chicken to prepared baking dish. Bake until crisp, about 10 minutes.
4. Flip chicken breasts, and pour tomato sauce over them to coat. Sprinkle with cheese, and bake until bubbling and top is lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
5. While chicken is cooking, sauté zoodles. Heat 1-2 Tbsp olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add zoodles, salt, and pepper; cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently, until zoodles are softened slightly but still firm.

6. To serve, distribute zoodles among 4 plates. Top each plate with 1 chicken breast (cut into halves if using 3 instead of 4), then top with remaining sauce. Serve with a sprinkle of minced parsley and hot red pepper flakes for added spice.