Saturday, July 15, 2006

Skillet Gratinate of Zucchini and Chicken

from Lidia's Family Table

2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts or chicken tenders*
3 small or 2 medium zucchini (1 pound, or slightly more)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or more if needed
1 cup or more flour, for dredging
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

For the Sauce

3 tablespoons soft butter
1 cup marinara sauce
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
12 small fresh mint leaves
3/4 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup vegetable stock, if needed

*3 small whole chicken breasts, or 6 breast halves, weighing 2 pounds. If you have only larger breasts halves (some are 8 to 10 ounces), you can slice each in 2, on the bias, to make 2 portions.

Recommended equipment: A 14-inch heavy-bottomed, ovenproof skillet or sauté pan for 6 portions; or a 12-inch pan for 4 portions.

Preparing the Chicken and Zucchini

Place rack in the center or upper third of the oven and preheat to 425º.

If the chicken breasts are whole, cut them in half. Trim off any bits of fat, skin, or tendon. Flatten each breast half with a mallet (or the flat bottom of a heavy pan) to an even thickness, about 3/4 inch.

Trim the stem and blossom ends of the zucchini and wash well. Slice across the squash on a sharp angle, creating long ovals, 1/4 inch thick. You should have about twenty pieces at least 3 inches long, and a few shorter pieces from the ends.

Place 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in the skillet, tilt to coat the bottom, and set it over medium heat.

Toss about half the zucchini pieces in flour to coat well (set flour aside to use for chicken), pat off any excess, and lay them in the pan. Keep the heat moderate, and let the pieces caramelize slowly for about 4 minutes. Turn when the edges are nicely browned on the underside; fry for about 2 minutes on the second side. With a slotted spatual, lift the pieces to a plate or tray (no paper towels are needed here) and salt lightly. Fry the remaining zucchini ovals in the same way and salt them. While frying, monitor the heat, keeping it high enough to brown the zucchini but not let them burn.

When the zucchini are done, turn off the heat but leave all the oil in the skillet.

Starting on the Stovetop

Have all of your gratinate and sauce ingredients handy to the stove.

You should have at least 2 tablespoons of live oil in the skillet (add a bit if needed). Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and set the pan over medium-low heat.

Salt the chicken pieces lightly, flop them in the dredging flour to coast on both sides, and pat off excess. When the butter is just beginning to sizzle, arrange all six cutlets in the pan. Cook them gently for 1 1/2 minutes, then turn them over; they should be very lightly colored, with no browning.

Maintain the gentle cooking whiles you assemble the gratinate.

Sprinkle the chicken again with salt (using 1/2 teaspoon total for the dish).

Spread a heaping tablespoon of tomato sauce on top of each cutlet.

Arrange the zucchini slices on top of the sauced chicken, overlapping the ovals so each portion is neatly covered. Use all the zuchinni.

Now raise the heat a bit and begin to develop the sauce:

Sprinkle the red pepper flakes on an open "hot spot" in the skillet where it will sizzle and toast briefly.

Drop the remaining butter, in small pieces, in between the layered cutlets.

After a few seconds, pour in 2/3 cup of the wine around the cutlets and let it heat briefly, 10-20 seconds.

Spoon the rest of the cup of tomato sauce into the pan (not on the chicken).

Bring to a simmer, then drop the mint into the sauce all around the pan.

Give the pan a gentle shake or two, to mix and emulsify the sauce ingredients.

Finally, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of grated cheese evenly over each zucchini-topped mount.

At this point, the sauce should be about 1/3 inch deep in your pan or even higher, coming well up the sides of the chicken cutlet. If not, pour in the rest of the wine and as much hot vegetable broth or stock as necessary. Raise the heat again to bring the pan sauce to an active simmer.

Finishing in the Oven

When the sauce is simmering, place the skillet in the oven. (Put the handle in front and the food in the back.)

Bake for about 10 minutes--and have thick pot holders or dry towels in hand before you touch the handle or the skillet!--then open the oven and check the pan.

Right on the rack, give the skillet another gentle shake. There should still be plenty of sauce, and the cheese should be lightly colored. If the sauce appears syrupy, or close to evaporating, add more vegetable broth, stock, tomato sauce, or wine to raise the level.

Bake for another 8 to 10 mintues, until the chicken is fully cooked and tender and the gratinate top is deeply and evenly browned. If the cheese layer still appears too light, raise the heat in the oven as high as possible (turn on the broiler if it is top-mounted) and bake briefly until it is as dark and crispy as you like.

Carefully remove the skillet from the oven, handling it with plenty of thick cloths. I carry it right to the dining table, where it makes a beautiful presentation. While it is on the table, leave the cloths overing the hot handle. With a large, angled spatula, lift one portion of chicken-and-zucchini gratinate onto a dinner plate, then spoon over it some of the sauce.

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