Everybody who loves to cook, even if it isn’t all the time, has their “go-to” dishes. Recipes they can always rely on for a main course they can be certain everyone will like whether the occasion is casual or special. The trick is to have something that’s quick and easy to prepare while simultaneously looking and feeling special, impressing guests at first sight and providing big, pleasing flavor from the very first bite.
For me, those characteristics quickly narrow down the field to a recipe I’ve loved for many years and still know will be appreciated by anybody I serve it to: my version of chicken piccata with lemon-caper sauce.
You’ll find the dish on the menus of many Italian restaurants. Generally, it describes boneless, skinless chicken breasts that have been sliced or pounded, or both, to a thinness that makes it possible to cook them through very quickly over fairly high heat.
Lightly dredged in flour, rapidly sauteed in olive oil, and then set aside while the flavorful pan deposits are transformed into a swiftly assembled sauce of garlic, lemon juice, white wine, chicken stock, butter, capers and some parsley, the chicken seems transformed into something that delights all the senses at once. No wonder the Italian term “piccata” actually comes to us from the French “piquer,” the same source as a familiar English word “piquant” that evokes pleasant, lively flavors.
One of the wonderful things about this recipe is that you can make it in a single large saute pan and, as long as you have all of the ingredients prepped in advance, the entire cooking process will take you no more than about 15 minutes, start to finish. So you won’t be away from your family or friends very long — and, if you’re fortunate enough to have an eat-in kitchen, you can very easily put on an impressive culinary show. Feel free to vary the dish, as well, with thin cutlets of turkey breast, veal, pork tenderloin or a fairly meaty seafood like swordfish.
Many people like to serve a starchy side such as rice, potatoes or pasta with the piccata to soak up all the delicious sauce, but one of my favorite accompaniments is sauteed spinach. It takes little more than a minute to cook, especially if you start with prewashed bags of baby spinach leaves, and it offers a brightly colored, flavorful contrast to the pale lemon-colored, tangy main dish.
Makes 4 servings.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-tablespoon pieces
2 tablespoons garlic minced garlic
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup good-quality canned chicken stock or broth
2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 teaspoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, finely chopped
Lemon slices, optional garnish
First, butterfly each chicken breast half: Place the breast half on a cutting board and, starting along the thickest lengthwise edge, use a sharp knife to cut horizontally partway through the breast until you can open it up into a butterfly shape.
Place the butterflied breast between two pieces of lightly oiled plastic wrap, and pound with a meat mallet to a uniform thickness of about 1/4 inch.
Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Spread the flour on a dinner plate and dredge both sides of each butterflied breast in flour, shaking off the excess.
Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add enough of the oil to form a thin, even layer and, when it’s hot enough to shimmer slightly, add the chicken, working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan. Cook each piece until light golden-brown, about 2 minutes per side, then remove it and set it aside. Add more oil to the pan as needed.
Pour off any oil remaining in the pan and add 2 tablespoons of the butter. As soon as it melts, add the garlic and, the moment the garlic begins to turn very light golden, add the wine and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits. Add the chicken stock, lemon juice and capers. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and use a whisk to briskly stir in the rest of the butter a few pieces at a time to form a creamy sauce. Continue simmering and stirring until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, if needed, with salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley.
Return all the chicken to the pan, and turn it in the sauce to warm through. Transfer the chicken to heated serving plates, spooning the sauce and capers evenly over each portion. Garnish with lemon slices, if desired, and serve with sauteed baby spinach.
Makes 4 servings.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds baby spinach leaves, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. As soon as it is hot enough to swirl easily, add the garlic and saute just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Working in large handfuls, add the spinach to the pan, stirring it continuously; as it begins wilts down, immediately add more (and keep stirring) until all of the spinach is in the pan.
The moment all of the spinach has wilted, after about 1 minute, stir in red pepper flakes to taste along with the sugar; then season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.