In Scout’s How to Cook Vancouver series, we will be striving to combine our addiction to dining out with our passion for cooking by challenging ourselves to make Vancouver’s best restaurant dishes in our own homes.
I’m writing in defense of the chicken person at every restaurant. The person who gives chicken the benefit of the doubt at eateries where poultry is eschewed in favour of gargantuan cuts of decadent red meat or bespoke ceramic bowls stacked with luscious pillows of stuffed pasta. Good chicken rivals only good pork in the Best of Meats competition of my heart (lamb, please know that you are such a close third). It’s the reason I can’t tell you much of anything about the veal or the sablefish or even the pasta at Pepino’s Spaghetti House on Commercial Drive (other than the spag aglio e olio that I order alongside my chicken).
Because on my first visit I rightfully followed my heart and made the best ordering decision possible: I went for the chicken piccata and I never ever looked back. The combination of my deep fondness for an old-school, Italian-American chicken dish (marsala, saltimbocca, piccata, oh YES!) combined with my deeper fondness for crispy-skin, the salty punch of capers, and the welcoming brace of caramelized lemon makes this meal one of my all-time favourites in the city. Add in Pepino’s dimly lit, bustling dining room that effortlessly hugs the line between comfort and debauchery and you can guarantee that I’ll be back with a diligent loyalty.
Pepino’s original piccata is a magnificently generous deboned breast with the drumette righteously brandished in the air like it was offering an empowering fist bump (on your tasteful order choice, of course). The home cook’s version omits the peppy little drumette and makes use of a less dramatically-sized, skin-on, deboned chicken breast that has been salted overnight (or at least for several hours!) and dredged in flour before being pan-fried until crispy and juicy. The sauce is classic piccata all the way – a garlicky, white wine-laced number made silky by the gentle addition of butter – and the whole masterpiece is topped with crispy capers, a scattering of bright parsley (left unfried, unlike the original, mostly out of a “who can be bothered?” attitude), and a squeeze of caramelized lemon. It’s one of those dishes that takes not much time to execute but does well from a bit of thoughtful preparation so that you can fire it all off quickly when the time comes. For those of you counting, this is indeed the THIRD chicken dish that I have put forward for this column in which I implore you to salt the skin thoroughly before submitting the bird to an overnight chill session in the fridge (three is what officially makes a pattern – this is no mistake, the crispiest-skinned, juiciest chicken is born from the salt-chill-cook trifecta).
Source & ingredients note: The sauce recipe comes slightly modified from a Chris Morocco recipe while the preparation of the chicken itself comes from scrupulously eating this dish many, many times combined with an obsession for “sort of dry-brining” poultry. A good butcher (the only place you should really be buying meat from) will probably be open to both deboning AND pounding some skin-on chicken breasts for you. If they will only debone (or already sell skin-on, boneless chicken breasts), you can pound the breasts yourself by placing each piece between 2 sheets of parchment paper and evenly pounding using a mallet or heavy rolling pin. Aim for even pressure and strong but not massacring strikes in order to avoid tearing the meat into shreds.
Pepino’s Chicken Piccata | Serves 4
4 boneless, skin-on chicken breasts, pounded to ~½-inch thickness
3 tsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal) + more to taste
6 tbsp olive oil, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp capers, drained well
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed with the flat side of a knife
1/3 cup dry white wine
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 lemons, halved
Chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, to serve
Salt the pounded chicken cutlets liberally on each side using ~3/4 tsp kosher salt per breast (for a total of 3 tsp). Place on a lined baking sheet and leave uncovered, skin side-up in the fridge overnight or for a minimum of 6 hours.
Once ready to start cooking the chicken, heat 4 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. It is ideal to pick a skillet that you are not afraid to crisp chicken skin in, meaning one that holds very low risk of stickage – I use a well-seasoned cast-iron. Place the flour in a shallow bowl and dredge each piece of chicken in the flour, shaking off any excess as best you can. Gently lay the floured chicken, skin side-down in the hot oil (do this in 2 batches if the pan seems even remotely overcrowded). Cook the chicken until the skin is golden and crisp, ~4 minutes, pressing down lightly when first setting down in the pan to ensure maximum contact with the heat. Gently flip the chicken over and lightly brown the second side, cooking for ~2 minutes. Remove the chicken to a large plate skin side-up and lightly sprinkle with salt while still hot. Repeat with remaining pieces if doing in batches.
Assuming the oil has not burned while cooking the chicken (hopefully not), keep the heat on after all the breasts have been cooked. Add the capers to the hot oil and fry for ~1 minute, until lightly crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove the capers from the pan and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate or bowl. Place the lemon halves, cut side-down into the hot pan and sear until caramelized. Set aside until ready to serve.
Carefully pour out the residual fat from the skillet (but leave any golden bits stuck to it – only remove particles that may have burned). Only wipe out the pan completely if you’ve actually burnt it as you don’t want the sauce to take on any charred taste.
Place back over the burner, reducing the heat to just shy of medium. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in the skillet and, once hot, add the smashed garlic cloves and cook, stirring often, until golden brown (turn the heat down if needed to avoid letting the garlic burn). Pour in the wine – stand back a bit, it may sputter – and continue cooking, swirling the pan and scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom. Cook until the wine has nearly evaporated then add ½ cup water to the pan. Once the liquid is bubbling, start slowly adding the butter piece by piece. The best way to ensure that the butter emulsifies into the liquid is by using one hand to drop it into the pan while the other hand stirs the sauce vigorously with a spoon (let each piece of butter melt before adding the next piece).
At this point, you want to reduce the heat to medium-low and let the sauce take on a little body (read: slight thickening) without overheating it as this will result in the sauce splitting. While splitting is not the end of the world (it will still taste delicious), it is a bit more unsightly and always makes me feel less triumphant than I’d like to. As soon as the sauce has thickened up just a touch, give it a quick taste and add a pinch more salt only if it tastes quite bland to you (remember that you’re going to eat it with salty capers and chicken skin). Snugly nestle the chicken breasts, skin side-up, into the sauce without submerging the crispy skin. Reduce the heat to low and let the chicken just heat back up before removing to a serving platter. Spoon the sauce mostly onto the platter so it pools around and under the breasts, but drizzle a bit on top as well, though not enough to remove the crisp from the chicken skin. Spoon fried capers overtop the cutlets along with chopped parsley. Serve alongside the caramelized lemon halves and any desired side dishes.