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, 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Like piccata, Marsala and saltimbocca, francese was originally made with veal cutlets.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.
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
1. 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.
2. In a wide skillet, heat olive and vegetable oils over medium heat until shimmering.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.