Chicken Francese – Arthur Schwartz

Serves 4

This is a delicious and easy recipe that’s
very hard to find because people look in Italian cookbooks for it.
It isn’t entirely Italian, so they search in vain. Indeed, it is
hardly even known outside the New York metro area, which leads me
to believe that it is a strictly local dish. In fact, the only English
language cookbook in which I have EVER seen the recipe is in one
of my own, Cooking In A Small
Kitchen
, published by Little Brown in 1978 and now out of
print, and The
Brooklyn Cookbook
by Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, Jr.,
published by Knopf in 1991 and still widely available.

The recipe does, however, have antecedents
in recipes that I have found in Italian language Neapolitan cookbooks,
but its final refinement must have been in New York. When I was
growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, it was just beginning to gain
in popularity over veal and chicken parmigiana. You can also have
veal francese, shrimp francese, and fish (usually sole or flounder
fillets) francese.

Francese of course means “in the
French manner,” but it refers to a food that is dipped in flour
and egg, then fried, then dressed with lemon juice or lemon sauce.
In Neapolitan cookbooks, there’s mozzarella or provola (aged mozzarella)
treated this way, and chicken thighs on the bone treated this way.
But a thin slice of veal or chicken? No. And these days, such a
dish would not be called francese in Naples anyway. It would most
likely be called indorati e fritti — gilded and fried. Entirely
an Italian dish.

Because this is a restaurant dish and usually
made in single portions, the following recipe is a slight compromise
— in order to prepare enough for four, you have to keep half the
recipe warm while cooking the rest. It can be done without drying
out the chicken, but make sure to ever-so-slightly undercook the
first batch, as it will stand in a warming oven for a few minutes.
Use the same ingredients and method for preparing veal or shrimp
or a fish fillet, keeping in mind that the cooking times will vary
slightly.

4 skinless, boneless
chicken breasts (about 1 1/3 pounds)
Salt and freshly
ground pepper
Flour
2 eggs
4 tablespoons vegetable
oil
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons dry
white vermouth
6 tablespoons chicken
broth (canned is fine)
4 tablespoons freshly
squeezed lemon juice
Lemon wedges

Note well: Make sure to have all
ingredients measured and lined up before starting to cook. You will
have to make the chicken in 2 batches of 2 cutlets each, so the
frying fats and the sauce ingredients will be used half at a time.
Before beginning, put the oven on 200 degrees so you will have a
warm oven to keep the first batch of two cutlets warm while cooking
the second two.

Between 2 sheets of waxed paper, using
the side of a can, a heavy jar, or a meat pounder, pound the breasts
until about 1/3 of an inch thick (or have the butcher do this for
you). Season well with salt and pepper.

Place some flour on a dinner plate or a
piece of waxed paper.

Beat the eggs with a fork in a wide, shallow
bowl or a deep plate with a rim.

Dredge 2 chicken breasts on both sides
in the flour, coating heavily by pressing it on. Then pass the breasts
through the egg, making sure they are thoroughly coated.

Just before placing the breasts in the
hot oil, dredge them in the flour again, again coating heavily.

In a 10-inch skillet, over medium-high
to high heat, heat the oil and butter together until sizzling. Place
the coated breasts in the pan and fry for about 2 minutes or slightly
longer per side, until the batter is browned and the cutlets are
just done through. If the fat in the pan starts smoking before the
cutlets are done, turn down the heat slightly or add just a touch
(a teaspoon or so) more oil. Do not let the fat burn or, for that
matter, the flour that has migrated into it.

As the cutlets are done (2 fit easily in
a 10-inch skillet), remove to a serving platter and keep warm while
making the sauce.

Immediately add the vermouth, chicken broth
and lemon juice to the pan. Let boil over high heat for about a
minute, until reduced by about half and slightly thickened. It will
be brown.

Pour the sauce into a cup and set aside
while repeating the whole procedure with the remaining cutlets and
ingredients.

When you have made the second sauce, add
the first to it, in the skillet, to reheat it. Pour the sauce over
the cutlets, garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.

Zaletti: Venetian Cornmeal Biscotti – Arthur Schwartz

I first learned about Zaletti from Thomas Halik, the proprietor of Not Just Rugalach, which has stands at various Greenmarkets around the city. (See my Maven’s Diary entry called Jury Duty Eats.) Zaletti are cornmeal biscotti with raisins from Venice.

Thomas actually thought they were from Tuscany. “You know how those Tuscans love cornmeal,” he said. Actually, I told Thomas, Tuscans don’t love cornmeal. But Americans nowadays think that anything good from Italy must be Tuscan, which is far, far, far from the truth.

Cornmeal is a popular food of the Veneto, I continued to lecture, the northeastern Italian region of which Venice is the main city. Think polenta, which is the cornmeal mush much beloved of the Venetians.

“I’ll bet any amount of money that Zaletti are from the Veneto,” I told Thomas. Sure enough, they are. I found recipes in several Italian cookbooks, English language and Italian language, and, along with the recipe that Thomas uses and sent me, which he got from the Newark Star Ledger, I tried them all. Following is the best of the lot, which I got from one of my most reliable sources, Michele Scicolone, who has written many books on Italian cooking.

I mentioned Zaletti to Gianni Scappin, a chef and Culinary Institute of America consultant whose restaurant, GiGi Trattoria, will be opening on Montgomery St. in Rhinebeck, N.Y., this summer. He is from the Bassano del Grappa, in the Veneto, and he told me, confirming Michele’s information, that the word Zaletti, which is also spelled Zaleti, comes from the word giallo, obviously because cornmeal is yellow.

“The real word should be Gialletti,” says Gianni, “meaning ‘little yellow things,’ but Venetians are very lazy speakers and they avoid double consonants and extra vowels, so it became Zaleti in dialect.”

The dough is essentially what Italians would call pasta frolla and we would call short pastry. In Anglo terms, Zaleti are very much like shortbread made with a portion of cornmeal. Some recipes do not include raisins, but Gianni says that raisins are a must and that they should be soaked in grappa. “And why not put the extra grappa in the cookies. Or drink it!”

Zaletti
(or Zaleti)

With a few inconsequential changes in the directions (you know I can’t help put my two cents into everything), this is the formula for Zaletti from my friend Michele Scicolone’s book, La Dolce Vita, which was recently re-issued in paperback I find the book invaluable for Italian dessert recipes, and now at only $13.60 through Amazon (just click on the underlined title, just mentioned) you will find it well-worth the investment.

3/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup grappa or brandy
1 1/2 cups al-purpose flour
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the grappa until plump, at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the flour, cornmeal and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, lemon zest, and vanilla until well blended. Stir in the dry ingredients. Add the raisins and grappa (or brandy) and still until combined. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour, or until firm enough to handle. (The dough may be made and refrigerated for several days. Return to a workable, but cold temperature before proceeding.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut the dough into diamond shapes, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long and about 3/4-inch wide. Place the cookies on two baking sheets. There is no need to butter, flour or prepare the pans in any way, although, if you want, you can use baking parchment to cover the pans.

Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, perhaps up to a minute longer, or until the zaletti are lightly browned around the edges. They will also be lightly browned on the bottoms. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

When completely cool, store in a tin. If the cookies get a little soft in storage, arrange them on a plate a few hours before serving and they will crisp up. These are not soft cookies.

Although Michele’s recipe does not specify this, in Italy, these are always sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Do it just before serving.

Arthur’s ingredient note: I used Goya’s fine cornmeal, which is widely sold in the metro New York area. It comes in plastic bags. You can use a coarser cornmeal, but be aware that the texture of the cookies will then by much grainier.