It was Halloween night when I decided to cook for Hawkins and I. With some late afternoon research, I settled on chicken piccata for the evening’s meal. Again, it starts out much the same as the other two chicken dishes, but with different ingredients in the sauce, has about as much in common as spaghetti sauce does to ketchup.
Start with about a pound of boneless chicken breasts. Butterfly the meat by slicing down the center of their sides. Once they fold out like butterfly wings, cut them completely and then pound them with a meat hammer. We want everything to be nice and flat. Dredge the chicken through about a half-cup or more of flour, seasoned with a half-teaspoon each of pepper, salt, oregano and basil. Just for kicks, I mixed a quarter-teaspoon of paprika into the flour.
Melt a quarter-cup of butter into a skillet with the same amount of extra-virgin olive oil on medium-to-medium-low heat. Since we are using butter, we do not want the heat to grow too high. Once the skillet is sizzling, lay the chicken flat across the bottom and brown both sides. To cook the chicken evenly, cover the pan with a lid. When the chicken is firm, and brown on both sides, remove it from the skillet to drain on a plate of paper towels.
I know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re going to get creative again to turn it into a different meal entirely than what we’ve made before. Add a teaspoon of garlic to the pan, and let it sizzle. Take eight ounces of sliced mushrooms and sauté them quickly with a bit of salt. To get the most from your mushrooms, cover the pan for a few minutes to they can sweat a bit. For a little body for the sauce, I opted to use a can of artichoke hearts. Drain one can of artichoke hearts and add it to the skillet, stirring well. Piccata gets its flavor from lemons, so I squeezed the juice from three of them for the sauce. Combine the lemon juice with a quarter cup of white wine and stir it well. Most of the piccatas I’ve enjoyed have featured capers, which are the buds of a particular plant preserved in a briny vinegar. Take two tablespoons of capers and add them to the sauce. Stir everything well before recombining the chicken into the skillet. As it simmers, the wine should thicken to a nice glaze. I experimented with the zest of half of a lemon, but decided that added too much acidity to the dish, and plan to leave it off for the future.
Side dishes are as much a part of the meal as an entrée. My first thought was to serve the chicken over a bed of pasta, but decided I could be more creative. Instead of pasta, I made a pot of polenta for us to enjoy. If I had to compare polenta to anything, it would be the southern staple of grits. Bring three-and-a-half cups of water to a heavy boil and pour it over a cup of cornmeal in a saucepan, beating it well to eliminate lumps. To flavor the polenta, use a teaspoon of salt. Heat the polenta on the lowest setting possible on your stove for a total of ninety minutes. To keep it from sticking, stir the pot every 10 minutes as vigorously as possible. As the polenta cooked, I decided to add a quarter-cup of frozen sweet corn to the mix, for some extra texture. I thought it was a wise choice. When the polenta is done, it should be sweet. I flavored it with about two tablespoons of butter, mixed well into the pot.
The polenta’s sweet creaminess complimented, and balanced the chicken’s sourness perfectly. We enjoyed our meal with some steamed zucchini. Hawkins said that the chicken was a bit sour, but the polenta offset it perfectly. He was late getting home from covering Halloween safe Night, so my chicken cooked a little longer than anticipated. The flavor did not suffer in the slightest.
Over the weekend, our former receptionist and dear friend Michelle Buecler joined us for dinner with her daughter “Panda.” I had intended to teach Panda how to make marinara sauce, but they got caught up with transportation issues. Instead, she helped me to make some meatballs for our spaghetti. I have to say she was a quick study and a fine sculptor of the meatballs that we enjoyed with our pasta. Good work, kid.
But to get back to Halloween, Hawkins and I sat with our meals to watch one of the most interesting new programs on television, “Pushing Daisies.” It is something of a faerie tale about a man who can reanimate the dead, with a few stipulations. With the elements of a Tim Burton movie, we are never at a loss for laughs. With the dead rising-of a sort, sour chicken and creamy polenta, a good time was had by all. Good eating.