Friday, October 1, 2010

Easy Chicken Parmesan Casserole from Cleo Coyle

I'm kickin' it old school today with a red-sauce favorite: Chicken Parm. This version is an easier (and more healthful) one than your classic breaded and fried version. But first...

Crime-writing cook, Cleo Coyle,
is author of the bestselling

Coffeehouse Mysteries and
Haunted Bookshop Mysteries
Guess what the big culinary news was in New York last week? I'll give you a hint: Four Stars.

An Italian restaurant received four stars from The New York Times. Why big news? Because The Times hasn't given an Italian restaurant four stars since the 1970s.

"Great restaurants may start out that way," wrote the Times' chief restaurant critic (Sam Sifton). "But an extraordinary restaurant generally develops only over time, the product of prolonged artistic risk and managerial attention. An extraordinary restaurant uses the threat of failure first as a spur to improvement, then as a vision of unimaginable calamity. An extraordinary restaurant can transcend the identity of its owners or chef or concept..."

Yes, the man actually used the word "extraordinary" five times in the first two paragraphs. And the restaurant that earned this honor was...Del Posto.

Never been, you say? Well, how 'bout you and I go there right now for a *virtual* dinner? Just click the arrow in the window below. (FYI - I'm ordering the 100-layer lasagna; and, for dessert, the chocolate tree, of course...)

Now you may not have eaten at Del Posto, but odds are you've heard of two of it's three owners: Lidia Bastianich (of the PBS cooking show, Lidia's Italy) and Mario of Food Network fame, who started out in NYC as the chef-owner of a little, bitty restaurant named Po in Greenwich Village, one that I was lucky enough to experience before Mario sold it and moved on to bigger culinary pastures.

The truth is I've never been to Del Posto, and after this review...well, as they say in Italian restaurants located in other parts of NYC: fugettaboutit! (At least right away.) Manhattan's obscenely rich and obnoxiously famous will now be lined up in an endless queue that won't have room for little old me. Do I care? Not in the least. And you shouldn't, either.

The next time you come to NYC, as a tourist or commuter, I have a different restaurant suggestion for you, a less formal but quite good Greenwich Village restaurant Otto.

No dress code at Otto's. Orgasmic Italian food (salumi to die for, artisan pizza, and homemade gelato). Inventive decor. (It's designed to look like an Italian railway station.) The prices are quite reasonable for a night out in New York,'s fun. Elegance and pomp are a trip, I grant you, but you just can't beat fun.

So you see, there are always alternatives. Like the recipe I have for you today...

Now Chicken Parmesan is the kind of red-sauce dish a typical New York restaurant snob would call an Italian cliché. But I'll tell you what: People LOVE their clichés, including New Yorkers: egg creams, black-and-whites, Nathan's hot dogs...just three of the dozens I could list for you. And despite all the shiny new, California-style burger joints and up-market shake shacks sprining up all over Manhattan Island, you'd have to nuke the town before most of the population would let you take away their "slices to go."

Of course, Chicken Parmesan is delicious made the old-style way: breading and frying the cutlets, covering them in cheese and sauce and baking. But today I'll give you an alternative to consider--a healthier one because there's no frying involved and instead of all that breading there's just a light layering of crushed garlic croutons.

Many of you may have seen some version of this casserole before (it's really nothing new) but for those who have not, I hope you'll enjoy the way I make it. The tricks to getting it absolutely right (in my opinion) are three:

(1) Use chicken tenders or slice your chicken breasts into strips so that the chicken will cook through (and become so tender as it poaches in the sauce that you can cut it with a spoon).

Start with Caesar salad style
garlic croutons and roughly crush them.
(2) Do not use breadcrumbs (too small). Instead, start with the kind of garlic croutons you would use in a Caesar salad then roughly crush them up (by putting them in a ziplock platic bag and lightly hammering them with a rolling pin or back of a large spoon).

(3) Pre-bake the chicken before adding the cheese. This gives the very best results--beautifully cooked chicken and cheese that's melted to perfection. Otherwise, you'll either have undercooked chicken or cheese that's freakin' burned.

And now...the actual recipe!

Cleo Coyle's 
Easy Chicken Parmesan 


To download this recipe in a free
PDF document that you can print, 

Cleo Coyle's Easy
Chicken Parmesan Casserole


5-ounce package of garlic croutons

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic (minced)

½ teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper (a light sprinking)

2 pounds chicken tenders (or breasts cut into strips)

5-6 fresh basil leaves (chiffonade)

2 cups of tomato sauce (jarred or your favorite recipe)

2 cups shredded mozzarella

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese


Step 1 – Prep oven and croutons: Preheat your oven to 350° F. Place garlic croutons in a plastic bag and beat with a meat hammer or heavy object until they’ve been crushed into smaller pieces. Do not beat these babies into breadcrumbs. But do break down any large, chunky pieces into smaller bits. Set aside.

Step 2 – Toss chicken with oil and spices: In a 9 x 13-inch glass baking dish, drizzle the olive oil. Add the chicken tenders, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper, and stir well to coat the chicken pieces with the oil and spices. Spread the fresh basil on top of the chicken.

Step 3 – Add sauce and pre-bake: Pour the tomato sauce on top of the chicken, distributing evenly. Slide into a pre-heated 350º F. oven for 30 minutes. Remove. Do not turn off oven!

Step 4 – Add layers of cheese, croutons & cheese: Spread half of the mozzarella and Parmesan evenly over the sauce. Next sprinkle all of the crushed croutons onto the sauce. Finish with a sprinkling of the remainder of the two cheeses.

After pre-baking, layer on half of the cheese...

Now add the crushed croutons....

Finally, add the rest of the cheese...

Step 5 – Final bake: Return the pan to your 350 degree F. oven for another 25 to 30 minutes. Casserole is done when all of the cheese is well melted. Remove pan from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before cutting into squares or spooning onto plates.

Re-heating: This dish makes amazingly tasty leftovers. For the very best result, before reheating, add a bit more sauce and cheese on top. Place in a small casserole dish, cover with a lid or aluminum foil, and reheat in a 350º F. oven for 20 minutes. Or simply place in a microwave-safe dish and zap uncovered until warmed through.

Click here for the
free Recipe PDF, and...

Buon appetitoeveryone!

See more of my recipes in
my Coffeehouse Mysteries
and at my recipe blog...

Eat (and read) with joy!

~ Cleo Coyle

New York Times bestselling author of
The Coffeehouse Mysteries

Yes, this is me, Cleo (aka Alice). 
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  1. Cleo, as always, such a great job of making a difficult to photograph item look so appealing.

    Love the recipe, worth a try. I love the classic version.

  2. Gorgeous pictures! Wow, I hadn't realized the Times hadn't given Italian restaurants their due like that! That makes 4 stars even more remarkable.

    And I love your tips for keeping the chicken moist and using croutons instead of breadcrumbs. Can't wait to try this recipe!

  3. This version will be worth trying love the pictures making me hungry I got to stop coming by here before breakfast lol

  4. Dave's right - food is not easy to photograph appealingly, especially while you're cooking it - and Cleo, you nail it!

    What a sensually-indulgent post. That Del Posto thing was amazing, wasn't it? All that slow-action photography..! And your recipe had me doing a mental checklist of my pantry and fridge. I think I know what I'm making for dinner tonight - and my men will love it!

  5. Wonderful post! Gorgeous photos, great recommendations, and a mouth watering recipe! Thank you so much! I haven't been ot Del Posto, but you're right, won't be able to get a table there now! I've been meaning to visit Otto though, and it's nice to know that there's no dress code!

    Will be at the grocery store for chicken tenders today! thanks for a great recipe for tonight!

  6. okay - doing this one Sunday. thank you!

  7. Oh, yum, a new favorite food!!! Looks delish.

  8. Looks good. I wish everyone would add the print option to their recipes.

  9. Sounds and looks delicious, Cleo. I'm thrilled to see a lighter version of the old favorite.

    ~ Krista

  10. This looks really, really good and I can't wait to try it. Wonder if it would work with eggplant?

  11. I am TOTALLY making this dish this week, Cleo (veggie-fied, of course, since we're vegetarians)--I love the taste of Chicken Parmesan, but it's such a gut bomb. I might experiment with CindyD's eggplant notion, too!

  12. Hanks down, gonna make this next week! Actually it's really similar to the way I make it except I roll the chicken in the crumbs, bake lightly, then cover with sauce and cheese and finish baking. I hadn't thought of putting the crumbs on top, what a great garlicky finish! I also make Eggplant Parmesan in this method, to avoid the huge amount of grease that lovely vegetable can soak up! I cut the eggplant into slices, drizzle with olive oil (very lightly), roll in the crumbs, and bake in the oven until light brown, turn the slices once, then cover with sauce and cheese and finish baking, only now I think you should add additional crumbs to the top! BTW, I have been known to double bag the croutons, put them on the floor, and stomp on them to reduce them to crumbs, sort of anger management for me ;-)! Yep, gotta make me some Chicken Parm, and I happen to have chicken tenders in the freezer! Nurse JudyMac

  13. Great comments! Stay tuned. My replies to come...

    ~ Cleo

  14. This looks great, & I just happen to have all ingredients on hand, including French & Italian bread in the freezer to make the croutons, and I still have fresh basil growing! Thanks for a new twist on an old fave, Cleo!

  15. I am so digging on Paul, our server's retro glasses!!! I'll be making this tomorrow for Sunday dinner...everyone here loves Chicken Parm and I am intrigued by the use of croutons...Grazi!

    Our fave dinner joint, Chez Phillipe has a relaxed dress code...sweats, pjs, socks only...pets welcome! Must plan a trip to NYC and check out Otto...Thanks again, Cleo!!

  16. Replies to…

    @Dave at A Year on the Grill blog – You are (again) right on the money. This was a tough food to photograph, but I really wanted to capture the at-a-glance layers so even a reluctant cook would find the dish easy to assemble. Thanks for the nice words and for dropping by. It’s always a pleasure to “see” you in our Kitchen. :)

    @Elizabeth/Riley – Totally agree on the Times finally giving an Italian restaurant its due. TY for the nice words on the recipe. Casseroles are great, aren’t they? I always love yours. Your Tex-Mex baby with the cornbread topping was a major hit at our house.

    @Babs – I’m always glad to have you stop by. AND I’ll work on taste-o-vision for my next post so you won’t go away hungry!

    @Laineshots – “Sensually-indulgent” perfectly nails that video. After reading your comment, I actually watched it again, this time paying closer attention to the specifics of the photography. That video had to be one hell of a difficult endeavor, given the array of culinary offerings at Del Posto. A four-star tasting dinner in three minutes – damn it’s inspiring! (Thanks for getting me to take another look.)

    @Suzanne – From the heart, thank you! I dine at Otto whenever I can (not nearly enough) and now a trip to Del Posto is definitely on my bucket list. FYI - Otto conducts open-to-the-public wine tastings on the weekends, as well. It’s a one hour class, and they hold them in the front bar area, serving salumi and cheeses to go with the various Italian wines. I haven’t done that yet but Batali, his partner, and staff are seriously knowledgeable servers of Italian wines so it’s on my culinary to-do list, too.

    @Kaye -- I’m so glad you’re going to try it! The aroma when it comes out of the oven always knocks me out. It’s perfect for fall, makes enough for leftovers, and those leftovers are excellent the next day, too. Eat with joy!

    More replies to come…

    ~ Cleo
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  17. Replies to…

    @Avery – TY - When it comes to any dish that uses cheese, you are far and away the expert!

    @Judy – I don’t always have the time to create a print option, but I’m glad you’re finding this one useful. :)

    @Krista – Oh, how I wish I didn’t have to think of “lighter” versions of the old favorites. But then writing all day probably burns less calories than chewing a pack of gum, so I better lighten something up, lol.

    More replies to come…

    ~ Cleo
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  18. Replies to…

    @ CindyD – This will absolutely work with eggplant. In fact, take a look at Chef Mario Batali’s eggplant parmesan recipe. (It’s one of the most popular Mario recipe on the Food Network web site.) Click here to get Mario Batali’s Eggplant Parmigiana. You’ll see it’s pretty close to this one!

    @Wendy – LOL! I hope you enjoy the veggie version. It should be delicious. See the comment above for a link to Mario Batali’s Eggplant Parmigiana!

    @NurseJudyMac55 – Oh, I love your version of the Eggplan Parm. For more variations see the link above. Always great to hear from you (and your method of crushing croutons sounds like great anger management therapy. A culinary Rx for sure.) Cheers to you for continuing to do the work of angels -- and thanks for dropping by the Kitchen today. :)

    More replies to come…

    ~ Cleo
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  19. Replies to...

    Lynn in Texas - Oh, boy, homemade croutons and homegrown basil? I'll be right over! Cheers and I hope you enjoy the dish (as well as the next-day leftovers, which are even better IMO).

    booklover - I loved those glasses, too, lol. Chicken Parm is such a crowd pleaser. You just can't go wrong with it (unless you're serving vegetarians and eggplant will do nicely instead). Everyone has their favorite way of preparing it, of course, and I'm always up for learning new ways of trying it. Your favorite restaurant sounds like a lot of fun, too, and -- I'll say it again -- you just can't beat fun. (These days especially.)

    ~ Cleo
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  20. Oh boy! This is printed out and ready to make next week. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Oh yeah - I forgot to ask you - what's your favorite bottled sauce? What did you use in this recipe? It looks so rich and delicious in the photos.

  22. Mmmm your version seems healthier AND easier, so it's got to be a hit. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Replies to...

    @Vickie - You are most welcome. TY for stopping by to comment. :)

    @Laineshots - We love Victoria brand pasta sauce, which is a small, family-owned Italian company based here in Brooklyn, NYC. If buying a bottled sauce, my advice is to look for small, local, companies that use fresh ingredients. There are a lot of companies like that across the US.

    Emily - Thanks! :)

    Carolyn - You are most welcome. Thank you for stopping by to comment.

    Eat with joy!
    ~ Cleo
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  24. Thank you, Cleo! This was a big hit for dinner tonight. Love how easy and tasty this is! =D

  25. Looks and sounds so great! I'll try it at the weekend

  26. Yummy - just what I was looking for as I get ready to leave work to go home to cook dinner! Thanks!!! BTW Love Victoria sause! (I'm in CT)
    thanks again!