We used to have a restaurant down the street named Italianos that served chicken piccata so exquisite that we wanted to consume it once a week. When the restaurant relocated, I almost had to take a day of absence from work to deal with the void I felt. Instead, I sang “On my own” — that’s the only line I know from the tune from Les Miserables — and tackled the challenge of making my own piccata. You will be happy to know it isn’t difficult and it has helped soothe the pain of the loss of our beloved Italianos quite nicely.
2 Boneless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. olive oil
salt & pepper
1 tbsp. capers
artichoke hearts (as many as you want — you’re going to have to open a jar or a can, so throw what you want in and use the rest later for something else; and if you don’t like them, leave them out. Gasp!!)
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 lemons, thinly sliced (1 to cook with, one for garnish that won’t be cooked, but will also be sliced)
parmesan cheese (optional) to sprinkle on top of the finished product
pasta, if you want to serve it with pasta
fresh thyme, parsley, or basil for garnish (optional)
Listen up, people, for a very important announcement. This is one of those recipes that goes really, really fast. You can’t start it and just expect that you will be able to keep up as it goes along. Not a chance. You must gather and organize your ingredients, grab a timer, and be ready. Chop, chop, chop — as in quick, quick, quick. Because that’s how we roll with this super-easy chicken piccata recipe.
Read the entire thing, all the way to the bottom, before you begin. Quiz to follow.
If you plan to serve this with pasta, get it cooked first, Remove it from the pan with a spaghetti tool or tongs and put it into a colander — saving the hot pasta water back in the pan so you can plunge the pasta back in to warm it quickly at the last minute, before you serve. Do not assume you are going to be able to multi-task by cooking the pasta at the same time you are preparing the piccata. You will be far to busy to pull off that miracle.
Slice your lemon. If your artichokes are whole, quarter them. Have your chicken stock measured and standing at attention. Same with your capers.
By buying thinly sliced chicken breasts, you save yourself some time and exercise, but I would still urge you to put them between layers of wax paper or inside a baggie and pound them a bit with a meat mallet. The point is to alter the surface texture a bit, so it’s not just a slick, shiny block of chicken.
Once you have taken out your aggression by roughing up the chicken breasts a bit, sprinkle on kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. (If you are still using pre-ground black pepper flakes, you are going to lose your license to brag about your cooking.) Do not skip this step. The salt and pepper contribute enormously to the texture and flavor of the finished product.
You may be shocked to learn that we are going to sear the chicken. This cooks them quickly and keeps them juicy, but you will want a timer, because you need to be prodded when it is time to turn them and also when it is time to remove them.
If you have a cast iron skillet, put it into action. If you don’t, use whatever skillet you have that can take really high heat.
Put the skillet on and turn the heat to high. [Don’t be a wimp! Just do it!] Preset your timer for 2 1/2 minutes so that when I tell you to push start, you don’t fumble with all the buttons — one more touch and the countdown begins — but not yet. I will tell you when to start the timer. When the skillet is heated up to the point that when you put your hand above it you really feel the heat, add the olive oil to the pan, followed very quickly by your chicken breasts. Hear them sizzle? Music to our ears!
Now, don’t dawdle. Push start on your timer to begin the countdown. When the 2 1/2 minutes are up, flip the chicken breasts over, start the timer for another 2 1/2 minutes, and add the capers, slices from 1 lemon, and artichoke hearts on top.
When the timer goes off after the second side has been cooked, use your tongs to take out the chicken breasts and put them on a plate to bide their time while you turn down the temperature of the skillet to medium and add your chicken stock to the capers, artichoke hearts, and lemon. Simmer for five minutes or until the liquid is reduced in half.
At this point, the audience should be seated and it’s time for the show.
Plunge the pasta back into the hot water for a minute, then drain. (BTW, if you had just left your pasta in there, it would have gotten icky, starchy. That why you removed it at the peak of perfection and are just giving it a quick hot bath now.) The decision of whether pasta and piccata are going on a platter or individual plates should have been made in advance and whatever they’re going on should be sitting pretty, waiting to be loaded up. Place the chicken back into the skillet to warm through. Put the pasta on the plate, if you are using pasta. Place the chicken on the platter or plate, and artfully scatter the artichoke hearts and capers. Slather on the sauce, then top with the fresh lemon sauces (the ones that didn’t get cooked and therefore don’t look worn out) and parmesan cheese. Bellisimo!
I prefer to have my sauce on the side, personally. I like the crispy bits on the chicken and don’t want them getting soggy.
Once you’ve mastered, piccata, try this:
For a variation on this recipe, leave out the capers and artichoke hearts. Otherwise, follow all the other instructions, but after the chicken stock has cooked down, remove the lemon slices and add a tablespoon of cream. Cook another minute. Top the chicken breast with the lemon cream sauce and garnish with fresh basil, if you have it.
No slurping allowed, unless you’re alone.