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Chicken Francese

Serves 4

    This is a delicious and easy recipe that's very hard to find because people look in Italian cookbooks for it. It isn't entirely Italian, so they search in vain. Indeed, it is hardly even known outside the New York metro area, which leads me to believe that it is a strictly local dish. In fact, the only English language cookbook in which I have EVER seen the recipe is in one of my own, Cooking In A Small Kitchen, published by Little Brown in 1978 and now out of print, and The Brooklyn Cookbook by Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, Jr., published by Knopf in 1991 and still widely available.

    The recipe does, however, have antecedents in recipes that I have found in Italian language Neapolitan cookbooks, but its final refinement must have been in New York. When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, it was just beginning to gain in popularity over veal and chicken parmigiana. You can also have veal francese, shrimp francese, and fish (usually sole or flounder fillets) francese.

     Francese of course means "in the French manner," but it refers to a food that is dipped in flour and egg, then fried, then dressed with lemon juice or lemon sauce. In Neapolitan cookbooks, there's mozzarella or provola (aged mozzarella) treated this way, and chicken thighs on the bone treated this way. But a thin slice of veal or chicken? No. And these days, such a dish would not be called francese in Naples anyway. It would most likely be called indorati e fritti -- gilded and fried. Entirely an Italian dish.

    Because this is a restaurant dish and usually made in single portions, the following recipe is a slight compromise -- in order to prepare enough for four, you have to keep half the recipe warm while cooking the rest. It can be done without drying out the chicken, but make sure to ever-so-slightly undercook the first batch, as it will stand in a warming oven for a few minutes. Use the same ingredients and method for preparing veal or shrimp or a fish fillet, keeping in mind that the cooking times will vary slightly.

4   skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 1 1/3 pounds)
    Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 eggs
4   tablespoons vegetable oil
4   tablespoons butter
4   tablespoons dry white vermouth
6   tablespoons chicken broth (canned is fine)
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
    Lemon wedges

    Note well: Make sure to have all ingredients measured and lined up before starting to cook. You will have to make the chicken in 2 batches of 2 cutlets each, so the frying fats and the sauce ingredients will be used half at a time. Before beginning, put the oven on 200 degrees so you will have a warm oven to keep the first batch of two cutlets warm while cooking the second two.

    Between 2 sheets of waxed paper, using the side of a can, a heavy jar, or a meat pounder, pound the breasts until about 1/3 of an inch thick (or have the butcher do this for you). Season well with salt and pepper.

    Place some flour on a dinner plate or a piece of waxed paper.

    Beat the eggs with a fork in a wide, shallow bowl or a deep plate with a rim.

    Dredge 2 chicken breasts on both sides in the flour, coating heavily by pressing it on. Then pass the breasts through the egg, making sure they are thoroughly coated.

    Just before placing the breasts in the hot oil, dredge them in the flour again, again coating heavily.

    In a 10-inch skillet, over medium-high to high heat, heat the oil and butter together until sizzling. Place the coated breasts in the pan and fry for about 2 minutes or slightly longer per side, until the batter is browned and the cutlets are just done through. If the fat in the pan starts smoking before the cutlets are done, turn down the heat slightly or add just a touch (a teaspoon or so) more oil. Do not let the fat burn or, for that matter, the flour that has migrated into it.

    As the cutlets are done (2 fit easily in a 10-inch skillet), remove to a serving platter and keep warm while making the sauce.

    Immediately add the vermouth, chicken broth and lemon juice to the pan. Let boil over high heat for about a minute, until reduced by about half and slightly thickened. It will be brown.

    Pour the sauce into a cup and set aside while repeating the whole procedure with the remaining cutlets and ingredients.

    When you have made the second sauce, add the first to it, in the skillet, to reheat it. Pour the sauce over the cutlets, garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.

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