There are people who never get tired of breaded chicken cutlets. (I know, because some of them live in my house.)
For the rest of us, finding a higher purpose for boneless, skinless chicken breasts is a lifelong mission. Their virtues are well known: They are quick-cooking, high-protein, crowd-pleasing, low-fat. As are their drawbacks: They are dry, tough, tasteless. A really well-seasoned, crunchy chicken cutlet is a fine thing to eat, but many other cooking methods – marinating, grilling, searing, poaching – only take the cut from bad to worse.
Chicken francese, with its butter lemon sauce, is the single best thing you can make with chicken cutlets. Chicken and lemon are a classic combination that almost every meat-eater likes. And it is one of those rare restaurant dishes that is truly easy to make at home.
“It’s one of our most popular dishes, but I have no idea where it came from,” Lisa Bamonte said at her family’s 118-year-old restaurant, Bamonte’s in Brooklyn, New York, where the chicken francese is considered one of the best in the city. Four generations of her family, including Bamonte, have worked in the kitchen, so she is more than familiar with the recipe’s signature elements: a flour dredge, an egg wash and a bright, plentiful sauce.
Like piccata, Marsala and saltimbocca, francese was originally made with veal cutlets. Those dishes are Italian classics, and they all work the same way: A thin cut of meat gets a light coating of flour, then just enough time to brown in oil, then a drizzle of instant pan sauce. It is a fast but challenging formula. The veal or chicken must cook through in a flash to avoid scorching the coating, and you must immediately make the sauce and serve the dish, or it will be cold and dry.
Francese is a more forgiving dish, and here’s why: It has an egg coating to keep the meat moist, and a plentiful pan sauce to keep the whole dish comfortingly warm. A dip in beaten eggs is traditional for European fried chicken (yes, there is such a thing) and classic dishes like Wiener schnitzel and fritto misto. During cooking, egg proteins form a thin but critical coating that protects the meat or fish from drying out. An egg-batter crust is not as crunchy as an American-style one, which adds a thick layer of flour or breadcrumbs.
But that’s OK, because you’re going to tuck the cooked cutlets back into the pan anyway, to reheat them and to give them a nice coating of sauce. And that means the dish is not such a split-second operation; you can cook the cutlets and make the sauce a few hours ahead, then reheat them just before serving.
Chicken francese, with its confusing name — “francese” is Italian for “French” — is not native to either place, as far as food historians have determined. A dish by that name is unknown in Italy, and there is no corresponding French recipe (although the sauce is a little bit like a beurre blanc, with butter whisked into a syrupy reduction of white wine).
All of which suggests that, like baked ziti and garlic bread, chicken francese is an Italian-American invention that was probably called “French” because of its luxurious, buttery sauce.
In the New York Public Library’s database of 45,000 restaurant menus dating back to the 1840s, the first reference to “scaloppine alla francese” is on an undated menu from Trattoria Gatti, a Midtown Manhattan restaurant that The New York Times reviewed affectionately in 1964. (The ambience featured “strolling musicians and waiters in peasant‐style striped shirts and cummerbunds,” and the pasta was housemade.)
Another thing no one knows for sure about francese is how to pronounce it. In New York and New Jersey, it’s fran-CHASE; if you were saying it in Italy, it would be fran-CHAY-zay; most of America says fran-CHAYZ.
No place has embraced chicken francese more warmly than Rochester, New York, a city with an illustrious history of great Italian-American cooking. According to The Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, veal francese was first served there around 1967, at a restaurant called the Brown Derby. It became the signature dish of the restaurant and of Chef Vincenzo (real name James Cianciola), and soon was on menus all over town.
Cianciola told The Democrat & Chronicle in 2005 that he had learned the dish from visiting New York City cooks, while working at a restaurant near the grand Eastman Theatre. (“Liberace told me this was the best veal he’d ever had,” Cianciola said.) In the 1970s, the appearance of animal-rights protesters prompted many restaurants to switch from veal to chicken, but the dish’s popularity did not falter.
At some point the dish underwent one other change. Continuing the region’s tradition of giving its favorite foods less-than-appetizing names (see: garbage plate, chicken riggies, sponge candy), the dish was renamed “chicken French,” and so it remains.
“It was called chicken French as far back as I can remember,” said Kristen Hess, a food stylist in New York and Florida who grew up in Rochester. She said that chicken French was (and remains) a staple there — at white-tablecloth restaurants, diners and everything in between.
“I plate it with lots of parsley, on a pretty nest of linguine,” she said, so the dish looks fresh and light.
You can follow her lead, serving the dish with pasta or something starchy to soak up the sauce, or with a steamed vegetable that goes well with lemon, like green beans or broccoli. The thin cutlets you need are made from whole breasts by slicing them horizontally, and if necessary, pounding them to quarter-inch thickness. Presliced cutlets are available in most supermarkets, and any butcher will make them for you.
Vegetarians can use slices of cauliflower or a favorite vegetable patty instead. If you like a little extra zip and heat, you might add a little grated Parmesan, a pinch of red-pepper flakes and a little parsley to the egg coating, as they do in Rochester.
Or you could branch out even farther.
Hess’ sister, Jennifer McGee, has been a server at Rochester restaurants for 25 years. McGee said that she has seen every kind of “French”: haddock French, lobster French, artichokes French and recently, creations like shrimp-and-broccoli French.
“I’d guess something French is served at 80 percent of weddings, parties, everything like that,” she said. “You can’t cook in Rochester if you don’t know how to make chicken French.”
And to drink
With this bright, lemony dish, you want an equally shimmery dry white wine. It could be the same white you use for the sauce, with flavors that are not too assertive and lively acidity that refreshes. You could start by considering an array of Italian whites, like a good Soave or a vermentino from Liguria. You could easily select a grüner veltliner from Austria, which is often the preferred wine with schnitzel. From France, you could try a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, a Chablis or an aligoté. An assyrtiko from Santorini would be both unconventional and delicious, and nothing goes better with fried chicken than Champagne, so why not try it with this dish? If you would like a red, possibilities include Valpolicella, barbera and Beaujolais. – Eric Asimov
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 35 minutes
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup vegetable oil
4 to 6 large boneless, skinless chicken cutlets (buy the cutlets thinly sliced, or buy regular boneless breasts and slice them in half horizontally to make thin pieces)
3 to 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed (optional)
1/2 cup dry white wine
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon, more to taste
2 cups chicken stock
3 to 4 tablespoons freshly minced parsley
In a wide, shallow bowl, whisk eggs, milk, salt and pepper until blended. Place the flour in a separate bowl. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
In a wide skillet, heat olive and vegetable oils over medium heat until shimmering.
Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, lightly dredge the chicken in flour and shake off any excess. Dip into egg batter, let excess batter drip back into the bowl and place in the skillet. Fry, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Adjust the heat as the cutlets cook so they brown slowly and evenly, with a steady bubbling. Transfer to the paper-towel-lined pan and repeat with remaining cutlets.
When all cutlets are browned, remove the pan from the heat and pour off the oil. Wipe out the pan with paper towels. Return the pan to low heat.
If making the lemon slices (if not, skip to Step 6 below): Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter and then scatter the lemon slices over the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring gently occasionally, until the lemon slices are golden and browning around the edges, about 3 minutes. Scoop out the lemon slices and set them aside.
Add 3 tablespoons of butter, the wine and lemon juice and bring to a boil. Boil until the liquid is syrupy, 3 to 4 minutes. Pour in the stock, bring to a boil and cook until thickened into a sauce, about 5 minutes. (It will thicken more when you add the cutlets.) Taste and adjust the seasonings with lemon, salt and pepper; it should be quite lemony and not too salty.
Reduce the heat, tuck the cutlets into the pan and simmer very gently until the sauce is velvety and the chicken pieces are heated through, about 4 minutes. Turn the cutlets over occasionally in the sauce. Place the browned lemon slices on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve, spooning some of the sauce over each serving.