Pity the poor skinless, boneless chicken breast, so often heartbreakingly overcooked. Dry, stringy, bland, sad.
What’s doubly sad is that it really doesn’t have to be that way.
A chicken breast deserves to be well-seasoned and juicy, and for that it needs care and attention. Mostly, it needs protection from cooks who crank up the heat and achieve the exact opposite. A blistering hot pan or grill is not the answer.
Cloak a chicken breast in crumbs and shallow-fry it in olive oil. This method absolutely ensures your chicken will be moist and delicious.
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If you are wary of frying, know that this is much easier and quicker than regular fried chicken (less than 10 minutes in the pan), and the result is succulent. It’s definitely worth the effort for an occasional indulgence. Everyone loves it.
First, make sure the breasts are of an even thickness, which you can achieve by pounding between sheets of plastic or parchment. I like to give them a short bath in buttermilk, too, which adds sweetness and helps keep the meat moist. But if you are pressed for time on a weeknight, it’s fine to skip this step.
As for crumbs, homemade are best. In this case, I favor fresh white breadcrumbs, made with a day-old French loaf or sourdough sandwich bread. A food processor makes easy work of it.
A quick dip in seasoned flour and beaten egg makes the crumbs adhere to the chicken, but it’s a good idea to sprinkle additional crumbs generously, patting them into the meat’s surface, for the ultimate crisp coating. And you can get the prep done to this point several hours ahead, well in advance of the meal, so all you have left is the last-minute frying.
On to the frying: Put an inch of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet and get it hot, but not too hot. You’ll need to adjust the heat to keep it right. The chicken breasts should appear to be simmering briskly. Don’t rush it. You want them to color gradually, three to four minutes per side.
For an additional layer of flavor, make a bright and citrusy relish of green olives and celery, sparked with mint, oregano and hot pepper.
Spoon it freely over this golden, crunchy, juicy delight.
Chicken breast Milanese with green olive-celery relish
Yield: 4 servings; total time: 1 hour, plus optional chilling
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, about 6 ounces each
Salt and pepper
2 cups buttermilk (optional)
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of cayenne
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, from a French or Italian loaf
1 cup roughly chopped pitted green olives (use a food processor if you have one)
1 cup diced celery
2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Pinch of oregano
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Extra-virgin olive oil
Watercress or arugula, for garnish
Lemon wedges, for garnish
Put each chicken breast between 2 sheets of heavy plastic and pound them to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Trim any ragged edges. Season each breast on both sides with salt and pepper. If desired, place breasts in a bowl and cover with buttermilk and refrigerate for 1 hour (or up to 6 hours).
Prepare the breading: Arrange 3 shallow bowls. Add flour to one bowl, then season it with salt and pepper and a little cayenne. In another bowl, beat the eggs. Fill the third bowl with breadcrumbs.
Drain the chicken. Dip each breast lightly into the seasoned flour, then into beaten egg and finally into the crumbs. Put breaded chicken on a baking sheet and sprinkle with more crumbs on both sides. Refrigerate, uncovered, until ready to fry.
Make the olive-celery relish: In a mixing bowl, combine olives, celery, garlic, orange zest, lemon zest, red pepper, oregano, lemon juice, parsley, mint and basil. Season with salt and pepper and stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Put a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat and add olive oil to a depth of 1 inch. Heat oil to 365 degrees. Test the temperature by throwing a breadcrumb into the oil — it should brown gently. Add breaded chicken breasts in one layer without crowding. Do not disturb them until they become golden and crisp on one side, about 3 minutes. Carefully turn with tongs and cook on the other side for 3 minutes more. Remove and drain breasts on absorbent paper. Give them a light sprinkling of salt.
To serve, put 1 breast on each of 4 dinner plates. Top with 2 tablespoons green olive-celery relish and garnish with watercress and lemon wedges.