Well, the first week of August had come and gone. San Francisco was in its best pea soup mode. Carl Sandburg may have referred to fog as something that 'comes on little cat feet...looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on..." but the man was probably high on hooch. Make no mistake. August is damp and depressing. However two things of note occurred that week: Barry Bonds had broken the all-time home-run record with his 756th homer at AT&T Park (or whatever they're calling it these days: the name is constantly being sold to the highest bidder) and my husband's best friend made his quarterly visit to our fair city.
I seem to be writing that final phrase of the last paragraph just in passing; but, in fact, these visits by my husband's close longtime friend and college buddy had become the bane of my existence.
It isn't just because the man is a loud, contrarian, selfish, insufferable lout who believes he is omniscient. No, his childish hubris and demands for attention (that make the lives of all who have the misfortune to encounter him difficult to bear) might be tolerable for the short duration of his visits if it were not for his insistence every time he stays with us that we cancel at the last minute whatever reservations for a four-star restaurant I have painstakingly made so that he may cook for us what he considers his signature dish, Veal Scallopini.
"Now, now, Lori", those of you who have not encountered this man might say, "the poor guy is only trying to show you his appreciation for your generous hospitality. Surely you can always reschedule your reservation to that Michelin star restaurant for another time; besides, how bad can a little sauteed veal be?".
I pray that you will never be in a position to answer that question.
First it starts with my husband's dear friend's announcement that dinner at the previous night's restaurant was unsatisfactory because:
a) it made him physically ill
b) was too "fancy", too "trendy", too "stodgy"
c) the wait staff was too attentive or inattentive; intimidating or ingratiating; attractive or unattractive
or maybe this time it's....
d) noise level was too high ("I can't hear myself think!")
e) noise level too low ("Are we in a funeral parlor?")
You get the picture? No matter what the circumstance there is always something so horribly wrong that it has made even the thought of attending a repeat performance at another one of our San Francisco culinary theaters impossible for him.
Knowing very well what is coming next, my astute and loving husband tries, Deion Sanders-like, to head his friend off at the pass: "How about pizza tonight?", suggests my hubby blithely to his pal, "You like Little Star's deep dish and we can drink a magnum of that '85 Gaja you love."
But to no avail.
The old college buddy nimbly sidesteps that option with a wrinkle of the nose and a shake of the head lamenting the sad state of hospitality in the 21st century and then it comes... like a tidal wave smashing a lifeboat....the dreaded, "How about if I make dinner for you guys tonight?"
The silence that follows this seemingly innocuous offer is deafening.
My husband quickly gazes at our family room's limestone floor with a sudden penchant for discovering every fossilized line on its surface. My attention is equally riveted by iTune's long list of ambient radio stations on our iMac.
But we are only delaying the inevitable.
His friend trudges up the backstairs to the guest suite to get ready for the day's activities, incoherently muttering under his breath while taking our silence as a sign of a definite if reluctant assent; and my husband & I sit together quietly like two aristocrats on the tumbril during the French Revolution stoically waiting for our turn at the guillotine.
I, in my infinite idiocy, suggest (as I always do) that his friend is our guest and should be humored and my husband, after a sigh of resignation (as he always does), agrees.
And so the long day begins.... after an exhausting afternoon engaged in things The Friend claims he wanted to do to please us but somehow lets on that he really didn't fully enjoy, comes the prologue to the epic: Shopping For The Dinner Of The Damned.
Shopping for dinner is something, as a rule, that I look forward to with an eager anticipation. Browsing through the glistening meats beautifully arranged on their trays, the interaction with the always helpful butchers who will happily hand-cut anything and everything to your specifications at Bryans, my favorite purveyors of meat & seafood in San Francisco; the gathering of the freshest seasonal produce, all of which are laid out in colorful array; perusing the aisles of gourmet goodies to see what's new and enticing. It's life lived in a Caravaggio painting until the experience culminates on the checkout line which is efficiently run. The queues never too long, affording me a little banter with the friendly cashiers who are always curious about what I'm going to make that night. Recipe tips and other pleasantries exchanged in equal measure.
All of it thoroughly enjoyable unless..... you are shopping with someone who argues that the veal cutlets laid out by the butcher are not "scallopini"" because they are not clearly labeled as such.
Of course, the veal cutlets as presented by the butcher were the cut of meat traditionally used for the dish and the cut of the meat itself is not technically called scallopini. It is not until the filets are floured, fried and sauced that anyone refers to the veal as scallopini. It is the name of a dish, not a particular cut of meat.
Unfortunately, this was not evident to The Friend who proceeded to ask another butcher in the shop for "Veal Scallopini" and was once again presented with the same thin boneless cutlets; after which I left the shop to avoid the next dramatic scene & headed next door to Peets under the pretense of buying coffee.
After my brief respite, I returned to the market and silently witnessed similar debacles with tomatoes ("I don't understand how to pick these heirloom things"), light olive oil ("What no Bertolli?" or "I thought light olive oil meant less calories?") and other items on his list of ingredients that supermarkets in Maryland carry which we here in the processed food impoverished San Francisco Bay area apparently lack.
As an aside, for the curious few (& I know you are in the minority), the "light" in light olive oil doesn't refer to the oil's caloric content; it means refined filtered olive oil that is lighter tasting with a higher flash point than virgin or extra-virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil is more robust in flavor than refined olive oil and should never be used for high temperature cooking.
Now comes the real thrust of the evening's festivities: The Preparation For The Dinner Of The Damned.
Here is where I am told in an imperious manner that my assistance is not required but I still:
a) am requested to make the appetizer plate
b) am asked where the utensils are one item at a time, time and again (although I, with a foresight afforded to me by previous experiences with this iron chef wannabe, have already placed them all within easy view & reach; along with all the ingredients for the dish)
c) am criticized for not having a saute pan larger than 14" in diameter, a lemon juicer & other culinary infractions
d) am asked again for ingredients & utensils that are right in front of him
All of this would be exasperating enough even with the promise of a gourmet feast prepared with culinary flourish by Thomas Keller of Per Se and French Laundry fame.
However, when a dinner menu consists of: unseasoned, floured $19.99/lb veal which is first fried & then boiled until it's texture resembles coarse-grained shoe leather in a sauce of unseasoned, unreduced white wine, lemon juice, sliced raw mushrooms and capers (without a hint of herbs, aromatics or butter) served with a side of Rice-a-Roni pilaf and mushy asparagus spears, you really don't know whether to laugh or cry.
No wonder both of his daughters are vegetarians. I, too, would choose a frozen black bean burrito over that mess any day.
After preparing The Dinner Of The Damned comes the epilogue:
the coerced compliments, the difficult prolonged mastication, the hard swallows followed by large gulps of a beautiful wine that is really meant to be sipped and savored not sloshed around like a dose of Listerine vainly hoping to rid your palate of an unsavory veal's flavor.
The worst part is the anticipation of being forced to partake of this culinary farce in another 3 months. Oh Death, where is thy sting?
Maybe, San Francisco will outlaw the selling of veal by then.
Why not? California's ban on foie gras took effect this past year.
Could a veal ban be far in the offing? Let's hope so for my sake!
Fortunately, the last time we had a jolly old visit from The Friend, I was able to bow out for most of his visit by claiming I had contracted a combination of bubonic plague and amoebic dysentery which would make my appearance for dinner, at best, a highly speculative prospect, but I sweetly assured him I'd play it by ear.
I also diplomatically added I thought he and my hubby would enjoy more "boy time" together which, thankfully, he readily agreed to, and other than one dinner at Farallon, a seafood restaurant in town, where I had prodigious amounts of the juice of a few crushed rotted grapes to help ease the pain in my posterior this "Friend" gave me, I was home-free! *insert standing ovation*
The one good thing (and honestly, there are not many) about living in a tiny apartment vs. the former 10,000 sf home where we hosted this culinary Death March to Bataan is that NOBODY will stay with you unless they really can't afford the price of a hotel room. So, thank Whomever, Mr. Insufferable Lout found more luxurious accommodations than the 6 ft rental couch in our living room.
I was spared playing hostess and being subjected to the grueling challenge of dodging all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune in the guise of a 6' 4" middle-aged windbag was going to shoot my way as he slept on my Frette linens and ate my Himalayan red salt, the graceless galout!
Well, with the hope that this recipe will somehow through the magic of the information superhighway reach its intended recipient, I submit for your perusal a quick, simple, foolproof chicken scallopini recipe bound to please your guests as long as your guests don't insist on staging some kind of gourmet coup against you as mine did to me.
Chicken Milanese a la Piccata (with Lemon Caper Sauce)
Traditionally, Piccata sauces are served with veal that has been lightly floured & sauteed not breaded (a la Milanese). I choose breaded chicken breast over dredged veal because both the Parmesan-flavored breadcrumb coating & the chicken retain moisture successfully, making this dish a much more forgiving meal for the home cook to serve. Unless, of course, you have a sous chef and a battalion of line cooks at your disposal, manned at their individual food stations and ready for action in which case you should go for the veal.
Using mascarpone, sour cream, Greek-style yogurt or creme fraiche as a binder instead of the traditional egg mixture makes the chicken even more tender and imparts a very pleasant though almost imperceptible tang to the chicken.
I also prefer to keep the coating crisp by not immersing the cutlets in the sauce before serving but instead by keeping them warm separately & then plating them together: serving most of the sauce around the cutlet & only drizzling a small amount of sauce on top of the chicken for artistic effect. A side of capellini with olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic & fresh grated parmesan, or some sauteed haricot vert rounds out this dish nicely.
Serves 4-6 friends recovering from an overly long visit with an asshole
For the chicken:
- 1- 1/4 lb of boneless, skinless chicken breast, tenders removed, carefully pounded 1/4" to 1/2" thick depending on size of the breast (do not tear the meat), about 6-8 cutlets
- 1/2 cup of flour
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon fine fresh ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup of panko (japanese breadcrumbs), regular unseasoned breadcrumbs can be substituted
- 1/2 cup grated parmeggiano-reggiano
- handful of finely chopped parsley sprigs, leaves only
- 1/2 cup of room temperature mascarpone or creme fraiche (sour cream can be substituted)
- 2 Tablespoons of milk
- 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
- 1/3 cup of refined peanut oil or 'light' olive oil
- 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
- 1 Tablespoon butter + 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for sauteing
- 3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into dice to thicken sauce
- 1 large shallot, finely minced
- 3 Tablespoons of capers, drained
- 2 small lemons, juice only
- 1/3 cup chicken stock, low sodium
- 1/2 cup of white wine (sauvignon blanc or a light Italian from the Fruili region is nice)
- 2 Tablespoons of parsley or chervil
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Wrap the inside of a large baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a large footed cooling or baking rack on top. Place prepared baking sheet to heat in oven until further instructions.
In a large dish or large shallow bowl, combine the dried herbs, salt, pepper and flour, set aside.
Using a large mixing bowl, place the softened mascarpone or creme fraiche, add the dijon combining well then add the milk 1 Tablespoon at a time until the mixture thins out to a yogurt-like consistency, set aside.
In another large dish or large shallow bowl, evenly combine the panko, grated cheese and minced parsley.
Set the dishes up in an assembly line starting with flour first, the mascarpone mixture next to it and the panko mixture placed last (next to the mascarpone).
Place a large empty platter or cutting board next to the panko mixture.
Next, using large tongs, place the chicken breasts in the flour mixture dredging each one until completely covered.
Remove chicken breasts from flour one at a time, carefully tapping off excess flour over flour plate before placing them in cheese mixture.
Using tongs, make sure the cheese mixture completely coats each breast. Allow chicken to marinate in mixture for 15 minutes.
After marinating, remove each breast one at a time, allowing excess coating to drip off chicken before placing it in the panko mixture & coating them thoroughly with the panko. After all the breasts have been coated, carefully shake off excess breading before placing on the large empty platter. The cutlets should be thoroughly but not too thickly coated.
Heat a large (14") non-stick pan over medium high heat.
Add half of both oils to start frying.
When oil is hot (test by adding a pinch of salt or breadcrumbs), carefully add 1 layer of the chicken breasts. Do not allow the chicken breasts to touch each other or the sides of the pan. Always try to avoid 'overcrowding' the pan. Cook the chicken in batches, if necessary.
Let chicken cook without disturbing for 3-4 minutes on the first side. When the first side looks golden brown (take a peek after 3 minutes by carefully lifting a corner of it) turn the chicken using the tongs and a thin wooden or sturdy rubber spatula and cook 3 minutes on the other side.
Using oven mitts, remove hot baking pan from the oven and place cooked chicken breasts on rack and return pan to oven keeping chicken warm and uncovered while the rest of the cutlets are frying. Continue to cook the remaining cutlets in saute pan adding additional oil as needed.
When finished frying, place the remaining cutlets in oven on rack, lower heat to 200 degrees and prepare sauce.
Using the same pan that the chicken was fried in, take a paper towel and without burning yourself, blot out excess oil or burnt panko but leave any browned bits from the chicken jus in the pan.
Heat the pan over medium setting and when hot add 1 Tablespoon of butter & 1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.
When butter melts add shallots cooking them until soft but not brown about 1 or 2 minutes.
Add capers and stir, saute capers for 30 seconds then turn heat to high and immediately add wine deglazing the pan by stirring up and loosening any of the dried juices that have stuck to pan with the wine; when the wine is reduced by half add the chicken stock, stirring occasionally until it has reduced by half then add lemon juice and stir again.
After 30 seconds or so add chervil or parsley and remove the sauce from the heat.
Then add the butter one cube at a time, stirring continuously until all the butter is added and an emulsion has formed.
If the sauce is too thick or buttery add a splash of white wine.
Taste the sauce for seasoning, adding salt & pepper to taste.
Turn oven off. Remove cutlets from oven. Serve on warm plates with sauce.