Parm Dishes to Warm Weary Souls

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: February 04, 2015 17:33 IST

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Parm Dishes to Warm Weary Souls

It's been nearly a half-century since veal parmigiana anchored menus of the fanciest Italian restaurants in America, the kinds of places where tuxedoed waiters were as likely to burst into a Verdi aria as they were to light your cigarette.

Breaded and fried veal cutlets, anointed with tomato sauce and baked under a bubbling blanket of mozzarella and Parmesan, were once the height of sophistication. Now, you're more likely to encounter the dish at your corner pizzeria than at New York's swankiest Italian restaurants.

Not that this makes a parmigiana - whether veal, chicken, shrimp or eggplant - any less sublime. Because at its best, when carefully and lovingly cooked with excellent ingredients, it is a fantastic dish, one worthy of learning how to make just right. It is also exactly what you should make in the cold heart of winter, when the steaming combination of fried meat or vegetables, sweet-tart tomatoes and a cap of

golden cheese seems nothing short of spiritual.

First, a little history. Of all the iterations of parmigiana (also known as a "Parmesan" or, to those who are on a nickname basis, "parm"), eggplant is the one you are most likely to see in Italy and the predecessor to all other versions, said Clifford A. Wright, a culinary historian whose 1999 cookbook, "A Mediterranean Feast," explores the different cultural foundations of the cuisines of the Mediterranean.

Although hard to pinpoint exactly, eggplant parmigiana was probably born in southern Italy around the 18th century, in or near Naples, Wright said.

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"Parmesan is a very old Italian cheese that was traded all over Italy at least as far back the 14th century," he said. "Alla parmigiana refers to the cheese, not the city of Parma."

The earliest recipe for what we would recognize as eggplant parmigiana comes from an 1837 Neapolitan cookbook by Ippolito Cavalcanti. It calls for fried eggplant slices baked with a tomato rag and Parmesan. Other vegetables, including artichoke, fennel and zucchini, were also traditionally made alla parmigiana.

Veal and chicken parmigiana, along with their cousins meatball, sausage and shrimp, are more recent adaptations, created by Italian immigrants in America who could afford to use meat in place of the vegetables they relied on in the Old Country.

A taste for everything made alla parmigiana reached its peak in the 1950s and was still going strong in the 1970s, said Lidia Bastianich, the Italian cookbook author and television personality. She remembers serving shrimp and veal parmigiana at her very first restaurant, in Forest Hills, Queens, which opened in 1971.

"I learned them from my chef at the time, who was an Italian-American," said Bastianich, who came to the United States from Italy when she was 12 years old. "In Italy, they don't traditionally exist."

She also had lessons in eggplant parmigiana, which her American customers expected to be breaded and fried before baking, just like the veal and chicken cutlets.

"In Italy, the eggplant is just sautéed; there are no bread crumbs," she said. "Then you add warm marinara sauce and a little sprinkling of cheese and some basil. It's very light."

But lightness is not the point of the parmigianas we love so much in this country. At their best, these are indulgent, crunchy and molten-cheese-covered endeavors, best scooped out of a casserole dish, or heaped onto a crisp semolina hero roll as a sandwich.

The breading of the meat, shrimp or vegetables is an important step, setting up the foundation for the rest of the dish (with the important exceptions of meatballs and sausages, which are never coated before frying). The coating needs to be crunchy enough to withstand being baked under a pool of sauce and cheese, but shouldn't be so heavy that it turns to concrete in your stomach.

The classic approach is to dip three times: first into flour, then egg, then bread crumbs, shaking off the excess as you go.

"The sequence makes a huge difference," said Lisa Bamonte, whose family owns Bamonte's restaurant in Brooklyn. "You need the flour to make the egg stick, and the egg to make the bread crumbs stick." A Williamsburg, New York, institution, Bamonte's will turn 115 years old in April; it has had both veal and chicken parmigiana on the menu for almost as long as its doors have been open.

Another piece of advice from Bamonte: Never do the breading in advance, or it won't fry up as crisp.

Be aggressive with the salt and pepper, but don't use seasoned bread crumbs, which can contain all kinds of unwanted additives, and are often slightly rancid from the addition of oil. Panko isn't traditional, but it is easy to find and makes for a particularly crunchy crust. Or make your own crumbs from good, stale bread. Dry it out in a low oven, then pulverize it in a food processor or blender.

Then there's the sauce. Even if you use jarred sauce for some recipes, it's worthwhile to make your own for parmigiana. But there's no need to cook up a long-simmered Sunday gravy-type sauce with a concentrated sweetness to it; for a parmigiana, you want fast and tart.

A quickly cooked tomato sauce - something acidic and alive - is your best bet, said Mario Carbone, one of the owners of the Parm restaurants in New York, which specialize in the dish. "You need a beautiful brightness to cut through the richness of the fried and the cheese."

They use the same tomato sauce for all their parms, which come in three varieties: eggplant, meatball and chicken. For Carbone, the eggplant version, which he modeled on the lasagna-like one he grew up eating at a local pizzeria in Queens, reigns supreme.

He prefers it served warm, not hot, so you can appreciate the nuance of flavor and texture, and served on a platter rather than as a sandwich.

"It hurts my heart to crush it in between two slices of bread," he said. "Every time we serve one, a little piece of me dies."

Chicken, veal and meatball parms, on the other hand, are just as happy in sandwiches as they are served on their own, maybe with a baked potato and vegetable of the day on the side, as is the custom at Bamonte's. Garlic bread goes nicely alongside, too, as does a bowl of spaghetti swirled with red sauce. The trick to making what Carbone calls "your cutlet parms" is to pound the meat slices until they are about a quarter of an inch thick, but no thinner. Too much pounding could make them tough.

Don't make the mistake of ignoring ingredients that aren't typically given the parm treatment. Cauliflower is one vegetable that you won't likely see made into a parmigiana in Italy, but it works beautifully during Northeastern winters, when good-looking heads are easier to procure than nice, sweet eggplants. Like eggplant parm, a dish of cauliflower parmigiana, the vegetables fried until brown and crisp, will cause both meat-eaters and vegetarians to rejoice.

If cauliflower parmigiana may confuse Italians, then shrimp parmigiana may make a traditional Italian nonna cry - that's how many rules it breaks. But shrimp parm can be amazing nonetheless when properly executed.

It does, however, need special care so you don't end up with a pan full of shrimp-shaped pieces of rubber. Use the biggest shrimp you can find, and make sure not to overcook them when frying. Turn the heat to high so the crust browns quickly, but try not to cook the shrimp all the way through (big shrimp give you more leeway here). Let them finish cooking under the simmering sauce in the oven.

When it's time to assemble the dish, most restaurants spoon the sauce and cheese onto the fried meat or vegetables and then broil individual portions just before serving. At home, it's easier to layer everything into a casserole and bake until the cheese melts and browns a little at the edges.

And about the cheese: You need mozzarella for creaminess and a grating cheese for tang. Use good, fresh mozzarella if you can get it. And, eschew the green can and seek out real, imported Parmesan. After all, it's called a parmigiana for a reason.

And to Drink ...

For choosing a wine, the important element in these dishes is not the centerpiece meat or vegetable, but the parmigiana, which suggests a red lively enough to both match the acidity of the tomato sauce and cut through the richness of the cheese. Any number of Italian reds will do the job, like fresh barberas from the Piedmont region, Chiantis or Rosso di Montalcinos from Tuscany (with the usual proviso that they not be oaky), teroldegos from Trentino, aglianicos from Campania or nerello mascaleses from Mount Etna on Sicily. Lambruscos or other, more obscure, sparkling reds from Italy would be great, too. Bottom line: If you think you would like a wine with pizza, you'll probably like it with parmigiana. Which reminds me that Champagne and Franciacorta go well with pizza, too.

Chicken or Veal Parmesan

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings







2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken, veal, turkey or pork cutlets (or use chicken thighs for even more flavor)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

2 to 3 cups panko bread crumbs, as needed

Kosher salt, as needed

Black pepper, as needed

Olive oil, for frying

5 cups Simple Tomato Sauce (see recipe)

1 cup finely grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place cutlets between 2 pieces of parchment or plastic wrap. Using a kitchen mallet or rolling pin, pound meat to even 1/4-inch-thick slices.

2. Place flour, eggs and panko into 3 wide, shallow bowls. Season meat generously with salt and pepper. Dip a piece in flour, then eggs, then coat with panko. Repeat until all the meat is coated.

3. Fill a large skillet with 1/2-inch oil. Place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry cutlets in batches, turning halfway through, until golden brown. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

4. Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle one-third of the Parmesan over sauce. Place half of the cutlets over the Parmesan and top with half the mozzarella pieces.Top with half the remaining sauce, sprinkle with another third of the Parmesan, and repeat layering, ending with a final layer of sauce and Parmesan.

5. Transfer pan to oven and bake until cheese is golden and casserole is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Cauliflower Parmesan

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

1/2 cup all-purpose

flour

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

3 cups panko or plain unseasoned bread crumbs

Kosher salt, as needed

Black pepper, as needed

1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into 2-inch florets

Olive oil, for frying

5 cups Simple Tomato Sauce (see recipe)

1 cup finely grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place flour, eggs and panko into 3 wide, shallow bowls. Season each generously with salt and pepper. Dip a cauliflower piece first in flour, then eggs, then coat with panko. Repeat with remaining cauliflower.

2. Fill a large skillet with 1/2-inch oil. Place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry cauliflower in batches, turning halfway through, until golden brown. Transfer fried cauliflower pieces to a paper towel-lined plate.

3. Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle one-third of the Parmesan over sauce. Scatter half cauliflower mixture over the Parmesan and top with half the mozzarella pieces. Top with half the remaining sauce, sprinkle with another third of the Parmesan and repeat layering, ending with a final layer of sauce and Parmesan.

4. Transfer pan to oven and bake until cheese is golden and casserole is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Meatball Parmesan

Time: 1 1/2 hours

Yield: 6 servings







3 slices white bread (stale is fine)

1/3 cup milk

1 pound ground pork or veal

1 pound ground beef

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 1/4 cups finely grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup chopped parsley

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

Olive oil, for frying

5 cups Simple Tomato Sauce (see recipe)

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Remove crusts from bread slices and discard. Tear remaining bread into small pieces and place in a small bowl. Pour milk over bread and let stand until liquid is almost absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes.

2. In a large bowl, combine pork or veal, beef, soaked bread, onion, 1/4 cup Parmesan, the parsley, the garlic, the salt and the pepper until just combined. Form meat into golf-ball-size rounds. (You should have about 25 meatballs.) Meatballs can be formed up to 24 hours ahead, covered and refrigerated before frying.

3. Fill a large skillet with 1/4-inch oil. Place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry meatballs in batches, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Transfer fried meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate.

4. Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle one-third of the Parmesan over sauce. Scatter half the meatballs over the Parmesan and top with half the mozzarella pieces. Top with half of the remaining sauce, sprinkle with another third of the Parmesan, and repeat layering, ending with a final layer of sauce and Parmesan.

5. Transfer pan to oven and bake until cheese is golden and casserole is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Simple Tomato Sauce

Time: 45 minutes

Yield: About 5 cups

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes (optional)

2 (28-ounce) cans whole or diced plum tomatoes

2 sprigs basil or 1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. In a large straight-sided skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Add garlic and cook until just lightly golden. Add chile flakes if desired and cook 30 seconds.

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2. Stir in tomatoes and juices, basil or bay leaf, and salt and pepper.

3. Bring sauce to a simmer and cook until sauce is thick and tomatoes have mostly fallen apart, about 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust heat as needed to keep at a steady simmer. If using whole plum tomatoes, mash them up with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher to help them break down. Remove sauce from heat and discard basil or bay leaf.

Comments © 2015 New York Times News Service
 



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