G Daniela Galarza
THE WASHINGTON POST – A silky sauce, tangy with lemon and the salty punch of capers is a hallmark of piccata recipes in North America.
But a common misconception trails the delicious dish.
“I don’t know why you Americans think it is just about that sauce,” my friend Lucia told me by phone from Italy.
In fact, in Italian, a piccata is a thin piece of meat, pounded flat, according to several sources, including The Food Lover’s Companion and The Dictionary of Italian Food. In countless cookbooks, it is used interchangeably with the term scallopini; in English, today, we would call it a cutlet.
In the 2005 edition of The Silver Spoon, one of Italy’s best-selling cookbooks, there are two recipes for piccata: Piccata al limone, which is translated as “veal scallops in lemon”, and piccata al marsala, “veal scallops with marsala”, neither of which contains capers.
A 1955 menu from Casina Delle Rose & Lucciola – a once-glamorous restaurant and banquet hall that is now Rome’s Casa del Cinema – lists Piccata di Vitello Al Pomodora (veal cutlets in tomato sauce) for ITL800.
What Americans today think of as piccata, with a creamy pan sauce, bright with lemon and pungent with capers, is more of an Italian-American riff on that pounded Italian cutlet.
A wonderfully quick, surprisingly easy riff that can be made with almost any protein or vegetable.
Here’s how it goes: Small, thin cutlets – below, I suggest boneless skinless chicken breasts sliced in half horizontally or large trumpet mushrooms cut into thick slabs – are coated in mustard and lemon zest, dunked in flour and pan-fried until deep golden brown all around.
Remove them from the pan, then make a pan sauce by adding some liquid (stock and/or water) and letting it reduce while you scrape up any browned bits.
Whisk in some butter, lemon juice, capers (roughly chopped, if you’d like) and chopped parsley. Spoon the sauce over the chicken or mushrooms and serve.
Instead of the chicken or mushrooms, you could try this method with:
– Fillets of sole or other tender white fish
– Thick rounds of eggplant, salted and patted dry
– Zucchini, sliced into long planks
– Cooked and drained gigante beans (no dredging or frying needed)
Dredging meat or fish in flour protects it from overcooking and helps achieve an evenly golden brown colour all the way around.
Some cooks start by dipping their cutlets or fillets in egg first; others dip the still-damp meat or fish right into the flour. I like using mustard as a coating because it’s an easy way to add flavour and plays well with the capers. The mustard coating also means you could dip the meat or mushrooms in breadcrumbs instead of flour, for a crunchier exterior.
But using flour comes with another benefit: The flour left behind in the pan caramelises, helping to both flavour and thicken the pan sauce. I like reducing the sauce until it coats the side of my spoon, but if you don’t, don’t let it reduce too much, or thin it with more lemon juice or water.
Finally, I highly recommend chopping your capers before adding them to the sauce. This ensures that every bite will have a bit of their tangy, bracing acidity.
CHICKEN OR MUSHROOM PICCATA
An Italian classic, piccata is an easy dish to make at home. In this version, chicken breast filets are coated in lemony mustard, doused in flour and fried until golden.
In the same skillet, whisk together the tangy sauce – it takes only minutes to make. This variation can be made meatless, too, using mushrooms in place of the chicken.
Serve with a side salad, mashed potatoes, pasta or risotto.
If you’re going the mushroom route, large trumpets can make fat, meaty slabs, but clusters of oyster mushrooms work well, too.
I like how quickly chicken breast cutlets cook, but feel free to try this with boneless, skinless thighs or chicken tenders. The thighs should be pounded to a near-even thickness; use care because they have a tendency to break into pieces. The tenders will take less time, so keep a close eye on them.
I love the mustard as a coating here, but many Italian recipes suggest you simply dredge the damp cutlets in flour, so skip it if you want.
All-purpose flour is the preferred piccata coating in the Italian cookbooks I’ve consulted – though your family or favourite restaurant may make it differently! Consider using breadcrumbs for a crispier crust.
The butter adds richness and emulsifies nicely. Vegan butter or refined coconut oil could work, too.
Out of capers? Try chopped green olives or extra parsley.
NOTE: If you can’t find cutlets at your grocery store, make your own. Use two medium chicken breasts, about 12 ounces total, and cut horizontally through each breast so the meat opens like a book; separate the halves. Trim away any fat or sinew.
Serve your piccata with a side salad, mashed potatoes, quinoa, pasta or risotto.
Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to four days.
– One large lemon
– Quarter cup Dijon or spicy brown mustard
– Two-third cup all-purpose flour (may substitute breadcrumbs, tapioca starch or chickpea flour)
– Four chicken breast cutlets, or four to six king oyster mushrooms, sliced lengthwise into three-quarter-inch-thick hunks
– Quarter cup olive oil
– Quarter cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
– Two tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
– Three tablespoons capers in brine, drained, chopped if desired
– Fine salt
– Freshly cracked black pepper
– Two tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided
Zest the lemon into a shallow bowl and stir in the mustard. Juice the lemon (you should have at least quarter cup juice; if not, juice another lemon) and set aside to use later in the sauce.
Place the flour in a separate shallow bowl. Add the chicken or mushroom pieces to the bowl with the mustard mixture and, using one hand or tongs, coat the pieces evenly with the mustard. Transfer the pieces to the flour, and dredge until evenly coated.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Working in batches, if necessary, and using tongs, transfer the coated chicken or mushroom pieces to the hot oil, letting each piece fall away from you so hot oil doesn’t splatter onto you.
Fry until deep golden on the bottom, about three minutes; flip and fry on the other side until deep golden brown, about three minutes. (The chicken should register 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. The mushrooms are done when they’re deep golden all the way around).
Reduce the heat to medium-low, transfer the cooked chicken or mushrooms to a plate and
Add the stock to the skillet, and whisk to stir up any browned bits. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer.
Cook until the mixture reduces by about a quarter, about one-and-a-half minutes.
Whisk in quarter cup of the reserved lemon juice, followed by the butter until a smooth sauce forms, about two minutes. Stir in the capers. Taste, and add more lemon juice, to taste, plus salt and pepper as needed. Remove from the heat and stir in one tablespoon of the parsley.
Transfer the chicken or mushrooms to plates and top with two tablespoons to quarter cup sauce per serving. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley.