Yesterday was one of those days when I didn't have a whole lot of time to make supper but when considering my options, I was really in the mood for something different, something special, something 'exotic', for lack of a better word. But is there a suppertime meal that is both fancy AND quick and easy, with minimal fuss and fewer ingredients? The premise of most Italian cuisine is a few simple, readily available ingredients, cooked simplistically, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Saltimbocca is one such dish and it takes under 30 minutes from prep to plate.
I read an interesting article some time ago about dishes that are frequently touted as 'cucina Romana' that aren't clearly of Roman origin. Saltimbucca was mentioned as one of those dishes, as are 'carbonara' and 'gnocchi alla Romana'. However, due to their increasing popularity in Rome, these dishes are quickly identified as belonging to the 'cucina Romana' cuisine. Historians believe saltimbocca actually originates in Brescia, a city and commune in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy, but I would proceed with caution before suggesting that to the chefs of Rome who have elevated saltimbucca to an artform!
The ingredients for saltimbucca are few and common which makes it quite easy to make at home. All you need is chicken cutlets, (or breasts pounded to 1/4" thickness), sage, prosciutto, olive oil, salt and pepper, dry white wine for deglazing, chicken stock and butter. Mind you there are many variations to saltimbucca: veal is the traditional meat of choice, pancetta as opposed to prosciutto, Marsala insead of white wine, and stuffed and rolled versus flat and layered.
Some believe that veal yields a fuller-tasting dish than chicken, but I opted for chicken due to it's availability, it's more economical and currently, my youngest daughter is going through some sort of social stand against veal. (I tried explaining that veal is not unlike any other meat that we eat and conditions at veal farms have greatly improved in the last several years. I almost had her when I specificed that dairy farms have very little use for male calves and that veal farms actually give purpose to the young male calves but I think her reasoning is probably along the same lines of her inability to eat fluffy little white lamb).
I used prosciutto primarily because it's pretty much a staple in my refrigerator. Rolling the prosciutto around the chicken breasts to secure the sage leaves also proides a beatufiul texture and deeper browning than would pancetta and is distinguished by crisp, salty little ruffles of deliciousness. I also opted to use white wine to deglaze my pan because I like it's pleasant acidity but I do also like the sweeter, rounder taste that using Marsala would provide.
Preparation of the chicken saltimbucca couldn't be easier: I placed chicken cutlets between two sheets of wax paper, pounded them to approximately 1/4" thickness, seasoned with freshly ground black pepper and very little sea salt (the prosciutto would provide adequate saltiness), placed 3-4 fresh sage leaves on top and wrapped prosciutto slices around the cutlets to secure the sage. The chicken cutets only take about 2 minutes per side to cook and the sauce, about 4-5 minutes to make.
Once I had my saltimbucca cutlets all ready to cook, I decided to get started on my side dish because, although chicken saltimbucca is a fantastic main dish, every good main needs an equally good side. I had decided on making Saffron Orzo to accompany my Chicken Saltimbucca. Saffron Orzo is very much like a risotto only not nearly as labour intensive. First, I simply brought 2 cups of chicken stock to a boil, then removed it from the heat and added a generous pinch of saffron and let that steep while I browned my chicken cutlets.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world by weight but luckily, you usually only need a pinch and it can be found in most speciality grocery stores in quatities for around $10. Last Christmas I was fortunate enough to get not one but two little packets of saffron, one in my stocking from Santa and the other from my sister, who brought some back for me from Abruzzo, Italy! Here in St. John's, Newfoundland, I know you can get it at Belbin's Grocery and knowing that it's there pre-empts me from looking elsewhere! You might be wondering what saffron tastes like. Well, some say it's slightly bitter whie still lending a semi-sweet taste to dishes to which it's added. Others swear it tastes faintly like honey while others still, swear it tastes like the sea! It's complexity is experienced differently by everyone and always a little differently. I stand on the slightly bitter/semi-sweet side of things while my husband says it's like the sea. Either which way, it adds a delicate hint of flavour and wonderful colour to whatever it's added to.
While the saffron was steeping in the chicken broth, I heated a large skillet over medium high heat and added about 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. When the pan was nice and hot, I placed the chicken cutlets, sage side down, into the pan. I cooked the cutlets for approximately 2 minutes per side, until they had a nice golden colour, transferred them to a plate and tented the plate with foil while I moved onto the orzo for my side as well as the sauce for the saltimbucca.
Can't you almost smell the incredible aroma of chicken, sage and prosciutto? Is your mouth watering yet?
To make the sauce for the Chicken Saltimbocca, I deglazed the skillet with a cup of dry white wine. (I used a bottle of pinot grigio that had been opened several days ago from my refrigerator, but any dry white wine will do, and if you opt for using Marsala, the process is exactly the same as with white wine). Brining the white wine to a simmering boil, all the while scrapping up the yummy brown bits from the skillet, I then added in one cup of no salt added chicken broth and let the combination of wine and broth simmer over low heat and reduce slightly while I returned my attention to the Saffron Orzo.
Bringing the saucepan of chicken stock and saffron back up to a gentle boil over medium heat, I stirred in 1 and 1/2 cups of orzo. Orzo. Orzo is a tiny pasta that looks very similar to rice or barley in it's uncooked form. The benefits of orzo are many: if it's made from whole grain flour, it's a good source of fiber, has about 10% of the recommended daily amount of iron and packs a powerful little protein punch, with about 7 grams of protein per serving. Not only is orzo perhaps more nutritious that rice, it cooks in under 10 minutes. The only thing I would recommend is that you keep an eye on your pot - you don't want the orzo to absorb all the liquid too fast and then get stuck to the bottom of your saucepan. (It didn't happen this time, but quite obviously, I'm speaking from experience here!) Here's what orzo looks like in it's unccoked form:
Once the orzo was added to the saffron chicken stock, I also added in one green onion, finely chopped, gave the works a little stir, covered the pot and let the orzo do it's thing. Mind you, I checked every couple of minutes to see how things were going, not wanting to lose a good portion of my saffron orzo to the bottom of the pot. When all of the liquid was absorbed, I removed the Saffron Orzo from the heat, and stirred in a little shaved parmiagiana regiano for added flavour.
By this time, this what my simmering sauce looked like:
Ya....I let it get a little outta hand. Fret not, though, removing it from the heat and swirling in about 1/2 stick of butter, cut into little pieces, was EXACTLY how the recipe proceeds anyway!
A mere 25 minutes after pounding the chicken cutlets, I was ready to plate and it's a good thing too because my family were all seated at the table, gazing longingly my way and not because they love me so much! (Although, I think at that precise moment they may have loved me just a smidge more than normal). One chicken cutlet per person, a generous portion of Saffron Orzo and a little reduced sauce over the works, plus some exra parm shavings for the orzo.
You might note that the sauce isn't exactly apparent on this plate and there's a good reason for that! After taking this picture, I spooned a couple of tablespoons of sauce over the chicken and orzo, picked up the camera to take the shot, and wouldn't you know it? The memory card was full! I could have taken the time to erase a few pictures and then take the shot, but really, risk serving and ultimately, eating, this fantastic dish while it was still hot just to take a picture? I don't think so!
I have to tell you, while very simplistic in it's number of ingredients and preparation, Chicken Saltimbucca and Saffron Orzo are anything but simplistic! This dish achieves an overall effect that is slightly salty, slightly woodsy and entirely sumptuous! No wonder it's served in practically every trattoria in Rome! 'Cucina Romana', Brescia or 'Cuisine de Kim', Chicken Saltimbucca with Saffron Orzo is proof positive that it doesn't have to be complicated to be divine! Literally translated, saltimbucca means 'jumps in the mouth' in Italian, and once you try it, you'll know why - you can barely wait for each forkful to reach your mouth and leap on in!