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Chicken With Italian Flair

Lidia Bastianich is loved by millions of Americans for teaching home cooks about good, easy Italian cooking.

She is currently shooting new episodes for her show, "Lidia's Italian Kitchen," which can be seen on local PBS stations. Meanwhile, we've asked her to stop by The Saturday Early Show with some of her favorite recipes to use for our Chef on a Shoestring challenge.

Bastianich's menu: an appetizer of Panzanella; an entrée of Chicken with Lemon and Capers; and for dessert, Cornmeal Cookies.

Bastianich says she grew up around food. Her grandparents owned a trattoria, and they grew most of the food they sold and ate - producing their own olive oil and curing their own meat. Bastianich says she filled her cookbook with the earthy flavors she grew up with and has stayed with through the years.

Our Chef on a Shoestring says she recognizes that food is not static, so she revels in learning something new every time she visits Italy. She believes that Italian-American food should not be dismissed because it is not true to regional Italian cooking. Instead, Bastianich says, Italian-American food should be celebrated because it is the perfect symbol of the people who made their lives in a new country. It incorporates the new and the old, and it reflects the adaptable spirit of the Italian people who came to America.


Panzanella: According to "The New Food Lover's Companion," panzanella is an Italian bread salad made with onions, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, vinegar and seasonings and chunks of bread. Some versions also include cucumbers, anchovies and/or peppers. More traditional recipes call for soaking the bread in water and then squeezing the water out. Others suggest browning the bread in olive oil before adding it to the salad.

Capers: Capers are the flower bud of a bush native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. "The New Food Lover's Companion" says the small buds are picked, sun-dried and then pickled in a vinegar brine. Capers range in size from the petite nonpareil variety from southern France (considered the finest), to those from Italy, which can be as large as the tip of your little finger. There are also the Spanish-imported stemmed caperberries that are about the size of a cocktail olive. Capers are generally packed in brine but can also be found salted and sold in bulk. Capers should be rinsed before using to remove excess salt. The pungent flavor of capers lends piquancy to many sauces and condiments; they're also used as a garnish for meat and vegetable dishes.

Braising: Bastianich "braised" her spinach. According to "The New Food Lover's Companion," braising is a cooking method by which food (usually meat or vegetables) is first browned in fat, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid at low heat for a lengthy period of time. The long, slow cooking develops flavor and tenderizes foods by gently breaking down their fibers. Braising can be done on top of the range or in the oven. A tight-fitting lid is very important to prevent the liquid from evaporating. Bastianich says she loves to braise vegetables including kale.


Bread and Tomato Salad (Panzanella)

1 pound 2-day-old country-style bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 8 cups)
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, at room temperature, cored, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 cup diced red onion
12 fresh basil leaves, washed, dried, and shredded, plus fresh basil sprigs for garnish
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, toss the bread, tomatoes, onions and shredded basil leaves together until well mixed. Drizzle the olive oil and vinegar over the salad, and toss to mix thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Decorate with sprigs of fresh basil.

Chicken in Lemon-Caper Sauce
Makes 4 Servings

2 lemons
4 servings Chicken Scallopine (see below)
freshly ground black pepper
all purpose flour
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled
10 large green olives (preferably Cerignola), cut away from the pit in wide strips (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup small capers in brine, drained
1/2 cup dry white wine (see below for guidance)
1 cup canned reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Chef's Note: Cerignolas are large green olives, each the size of a plump almond, with a very nutty, buttery flavor. They are usually kept in brine. If you cannot find them, other brined green olives will do. But use the ones with pits, which you will remove. They have more flavor.

Squeeze the juice from one-and-a-half of the lemons and reserve. Lay the remaining half-lemon flat side down, and cut into very thin slices with a paring knife. Remove the pits and set aside the lemon slices.

Season the scallopine with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour to coat both sides lightly, and tap off excess flour. Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a wide, heavy skillet over medium heat until the butter is foaming. Add as many of the scallopine as will fit without touching and cook until golden brown on the underside, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook until the second side is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining scallopine.

Remove all scallopine from the pan. Pour off the fat and carefully wipe out the skillet with a wad of paper towels. Pour in the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and add the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, the garlic and lemon slices. Cook, scraping the bottom of the skillet, until the garlic is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Scoop out the lemon slices and set aside.

Scatter the olives and capers into the skillet and cook, stirring gently, until they begin to sizzle -- about 4 minutes. Pour in the wine, bring to a vigorous boil and cook until the wine is reduced in volume by half. Pour in the chicken stock, bring to a boil and cook until slightly syrupy -- about 4 minutes. Add the reserved lemon juice, to taste. Return the scallopine to the skillet, turning the cutlets in the sauce until they are warmed through and coated with sauce. Swirl in the parsley and divide the scallopine among warm plates. Spoon the sauce over them, including some of capers and olives in each spoonful. Decorate the tops of the scallopine with the reserved lemon slices.

Chicken Scallopine: To serve four, start with four 6-ounce boneless and skinless chicken-breast halves. (If the chicken breasts being used have the 'filet' -- the long strip of meat that runs the length of the underside of the breast -- do your best to keep it attached to the breast as you cut and pound them. Cut each breast crosswise on the bias into two more or less equal pieces. Place the pieces, two at a time, between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them with the smooth side of a meat mallet to a thickness of about 1/4-inch. Proceed with the recipe.

Cooking With Wine:
Bastianic says when cooking with wine, rule number one is don't use anything labeled "cooking wine," which most likely contains salt and other ingredients you don't want in your sauce. Do use a good wine. What you have left from wine after cooking is its flavor. The better the wine, the better the flavor in your food. When cooking with wine, you want the alcohol to dissipate, so when you add wine to a pan, do not add any other liquid until the wine cooks for a few minutes and the alcohol has had a chance to evaporate, then proceed with the other ingredients.

Wine also adds acidity to dishes, which is one reason Bastianic rarely make a pasta sauce with wine. A wine high in acid will make an impact to the food. However, sweet wine can be used for sweet sauces and desserts. Wine also helps to chemically break down proteins. Therefore, marinating meats in wine, as well as adding wine to meats as they cook, will help to tenderize tougher cuts.

Spinach Braised with Oil and Garlic
Makes 4 Servings

3 large bunches of leaf spinach or 2 10-ounce bags of spinach
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper, or to taste

If you like, leave the stems on tender, young, or flat-leaf spinach, but remove the stems from tougher, thick, curly spinach leaves. Wash the leaves in a sink full of cold water, swishing them around to remove the sand and grit. Then let them float a minute or two to give the dirt a chance to settle to the bottom of the sink. Lift the leaves from the sink with your hands or a large wire skimmer into a colander to drain.

Heat the olive oil in a wide, heavy skillet over medium heat. Whack the garlic cloves with the side of a knife and toss them into the pan. Cook, shaking the pan until golden -- about 2 minutes. Carefully stir in as many of the leaves - with the water that clings to them - as will fit comfortably into the pan. Cook, stirring until the leaves begin to wilt. Continue adding more spinach, a handful at a time, until all the spinach is in the pan. Season lightly with salt and 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper.

Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet and cook. Stir occasionally until the spinach is tender -- about 8 minutes. If all the liquid in the pan evaporates and the greens begin to stick to the pan, sprinkle a tablespoon or two of water over them. Check the seasoning, add red pepper and salt if necessary. Serve immediately.

Cornmeal Cookies (Crumiri)

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into 16 pieces, plus more for the baking sheets
2 cups very fine yellow cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour, plus more for the baking sheets
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar

Makes about 48 cookies.

If you don't have a pastry bag, you can still enjoy these delicious and crunchy cookies in the their traditional shape. Chill the cookie dough for about 1 hour, then divide it into fourths. Roll each piece out with the palms of your hands to a rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the rope into 4-inch lengths and lay them on the prepared baking sheets -- shaping them into crescents and leaving about 3/4-inch between them. Lightly drag the tines of a fork over the crescents to create ridges. Bake and cool them as described below.

Arrange the racks in the upper and lower third of the oven and preheat the over to 400 degrees F. Lightly butter and flour two baking sheets. (This isn't necessary if using nonstick pans.)

Stir the cornmeal and 1-cup flour together in a small bowl. Beat the eggs, egg yolks and vanilla together in a separate bowl with a handheld electric mixer until foamy. As you continue beating, pour in the sugar gradually, until smooth. Add the butter and beat until incorporated. Spoon in the dry ingredients and beat at a low speed just until incorporated. (The dough can be formed into cookies and baked at this point, or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 1 day.)

Divide the dough into three pieces. Working with one at a time, roll it into a thick log and slide it into a pasty bag fitted with a large star tip. Squeeze the dough out of the pastry bag and onto the prepared baking sheet, cutting it into 4-inch lengths and leaving 3/4-inch between them as you do. Shape the strips of dough into crescents. Bake until golden -- about 20 minutes.

Cool the cookies completely before serving. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

The main course and dessert recipes are from "Lidia's Italian American Kitchen" published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. The bread salad recipe is from "Lidia's Italian Table," published by William Morrow and Company, 1998.

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