Chicken parm you taste so good.
Peyton Manning, Nationwide Insurance Commercial
This was a big week for me. I finally had to cook for people who weren’t related to me. And I finally incorporated tofu into a recipe. In fact, as opposed to starting with a meat recipe and finding a vegetarian version, I actually started with a recipe for tofu parmesan that I’ve had for a while. Cooking the chicken version was kind of a combination of following advice, winging it, and looking at different recipes while wondering why they all called for such different cook times and temperatures. I made some mistakes and often did not know what I was doing. But, ultimately, everything worked out for the best.
As I frantically explained to my friend Melanie via text, “I don’t have any carnivores to cook for this week for my blog so the time may have come that you have to take one for the team and eat meat prepared by me.” Her response: “Thank god you’re a few months in.” After warning her that, best case scenario, she could expect to eat extremely dry chicken, or, worst case scenario, she could expect salmonella poisoning, I invited her boyfriend and one of our other friends to bravely join us (Melanie wasn’t invited so much as obligated to come). And before I knew it, I found myself hosting a little dinner party.
As I mentioned, I began with a recipe for tofu parmesan. I got this recipe from some vegetarian cooking demonstration that I attended years ago. I really didn’t have a recipe for chicken parmesan. My mother assured me that all I needed to do was coat the chicken in egg and bread crumbs, fry it until it was golden brown, top it with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, and bake it at 350 degrees just until the cheese melted. But, as much as I trust my mother’s judgment when it comes to cooking, she wasn’t going to be around to confirm that the chicken was properly cooked, and she wasn’t going to have to eat it. So I perused some recipes on the internet, but they all said different things. Some said to pound the chicken into thin cutlets, some said to coat it with flour before the breadcrumbs, and there were all different instructions for fry and bake times. Basically, I just decided to follow the tofu recipe (which I was modifying to include frying) and just cook the chicken to death to be safe. Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t realize that there was a chicken parmesan recipe on the back of the tofu parmesan recipe until I scanned it into my computer for this post.
I began with the tofu for two reasons: first, because it required a large amount of time to prep, and second, because I wanted to use the same oil for all my frying and didn’t want to fry my tofu in chicken oil (I ended up changing the oil because the bread crumbs that remained in the pan after the tofu fried seemed to be burning). The tofu that I used was extra firm, as opposed to firm or silken or whatever other kinds of tofu exist. I assume this is the best kind of tofu for a recipe like this because it needs to keep a certain shape and hold up to the sauce and cheese. This tofu came in a little carton filled with water. To prepare the tofu for cooking, it first needed to be drained. I put a strainer in a bowl, dumped the tofu in, and let it sit for an hour.
After the hour had passed, I placed a towel on a cutting board, then the tofu, then covered the tofu with another towel, another cutting board, and a giant book. Then, I added a bunch of other giant books for good measure. At this point, I had made a mistake but would not realize it until two hours later when I removed all of the heavy books, looked at my flat cube of tofu, and thought to myself how narrow the pieces of tofu parmesan were going to be. This is because instead of slicing the block of tofu when it was about two inches tall and then flattening the slices (as the recipe instructed), I flattened the entire block until it was approximately half of its original size. To avoid having tiny little inch-wide pieces of tofu, I sliced the entire block horizontally (twice) and cut those slices into appropriately-sized pieces of tofu. I’ve said this before—and it is one of my biggest downfalls—always read the entire recipe first, and read it carefully.
After preparing the tofu, the steps were pretty simple. I beat a few eggs together, poured some bread crumbs on a plate, and coated the tofu in one and then the other. The tofu parmesan recipe did not mention frying, but I did it anyway because I thought it might make it crispier. Also, the recipe instructed me to layer the tofu, sauce, and cheese and bake it, and that sounded more like a casserole than tofu parmesan to me so I ignored it because I’m such an advanced chef that I don’t even need a recipe apparently.
To test if the oil was hot, I dropped some of the eggy bread crumbs that were covering my hands into the pan. When bubbles starting forming, I knew it was frying time. I fried the tofu until it was golden brown. The fry time really didn’t matter with the tofu because it’s not raw meat that needs to be cooked through to prevent making people sick. I was just frying the tofu for the sake of frying it.
After washing and drying the chicken (which is something I was instructed to do way back in the first week of this blog), I followed the exact same steps with the chicken as I did with the tofu.
The closer it got to my fancy dinner party, the more nervous and flustered I got about the entire ordeal. So I forgot to take pictures of the chicken frying, but I did make sure to take a picture of Sadie patiently waiting for something to fall on the floor. Also, I had to move the eggs and bread crumbs to bigger vessels because the chicken was bigger than the tofu, and I was making a huge mess. So please enjoy the lovely homemade plate that I made when I was four. Clearly, my talents extend beyond the culinary arts.
After frying the chicken until it was golden brown, I really didn’t believe it was cooked. The cutlets were on the larger side (I cut into a particularly fat piece and thought it looked undercooked), and I refused to serve raw chicken. As the tofu had to cook for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, I decided to throw the chicken in after 15 minutes just to be safe. When Melanie arrived, she touched the chicken and said it was done, and it occurs to me now that I should have touched it as well to know what cooked chicken is supposed to feel like.
Once I was sure everything was cooked, I had to add sauce and mozzarella cheese. I used my mother’s tomato sauce recipe (see this post for more details), and I felt like it went faster and was easier to make then my first attempt. I quickly threw the sauce together before I even started cooking and set it aside until I needed it.
I covered the chicken and tofu with healthy helpings of sauce and even healthier helpings of cheese, threw the pans of chicken and tofu back in the oven to melt the cheese under the broiler, handed my camera over to Melanie so I could put the finishing touches on everything, and crossed my fingers that everything tasted good.
One of my big concerns was how many chicken cutlets I was supposed to feed people. Melanie said one, but our friend Ryan said two. Since I decided to trust Melanie, I also made spaghetti and salad so no one would be hungry.
While I got a little bit stressed trying to get chicken and tofu parmesan ready while not overcooking spaghetti while assembling salad while being a good hostess, in the end, my dinner party was a success. Not only did my food not make anyone ill, but everyone enjoyed it. In the future, I would like to nail down a recipe for chicken parmesan to take the guesswork out, or learn the signs to know when chicken is safe to eat. The tofu might have benefitted from having been cut in thicker slices (which would’ve been possible if I hadn’t messed up the tofu flattening portion of the recipe), but, honestly, once it was covered in sauce and mozzarella cheese it tasted very good. Probably anything would taste good doused in tomato sauce and cheese.
All in all, this was a difficult but rewarding experience. There is something kind of nice about cooking for others, even if it is stressful trying to do a million things at once. And, after a lot of hard work, there is something very nice about people enjoying the food that has been provided.