The Compelling Lightness of Tuscany

When one hears the term Monte Cristo, they think of either the classic tale by Alexandre Dumas or of the devilishly attractive James Caviezel (who starred in the 2002 rendition of the novel…I admittedly think of the latter) When placed in a culinary context, it is often in reference to a ham (or other variety of meat) and cheese sandwich that is then dipped in an egg batter and fried (a variation on the classic French sandwich Croque Monsieur). So when I found a chicken breast recipe titled “Monte Cristo Chicken,” you can imagine my surprise that it has no relation to either one of these precedents. As it turns out, this is one of my favorite chicken dishes to date, and just so happens to be extremely simple to make! Though there is no attractive count involved (unfortunately) and no deep-frying (thankfully), this Monte Cristo Chicken recipe has certainly lived up to its name.
The actual “Montecristo” is a very small island off the coast of Italy, it’s literal translation being “Mountain of Christ.”* In trying to determing the connection to this dish, my best bet is its allusion to the flavors of Tuscany: Montecristo is within the Tuscan Archipelago*, and the majority of Tuscan food (I’ve experienced) has been notable for its simplicity. This dish most certainly is: lemon, wine, Herbes de Provence, shallot, garlic, and chicken stock are the flavors involved. The result is some of the most tender, flavorful chicken breasts I’ve ever tried. Herbes de Provence is a dried mixture of French herbs, including thyme, rosemary, savory, basil. etc. This is what truly puts this dish over the top. I imagine you can use any number of fresh or dried herbs its place, but it won’t have nearly the same effect.
In terms of preparation, I make much more of the sauce than what the recipe creates – it’s an amazing sauce! I nearly quadruple the original recipe. Rather than sprinkling the flour and herbs, I mixed them all together on a small dish and coated the chicken accordingly. I omit the lemon zest, but it would make a pretty presentation no doubt. Click HERE to see my rendition of this delicious recipe. In addition to spinach, I also made a very simple yet delicious side of Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes. Click HERE to check out this recipe. 
Given the Tuscan heritage of this dish, I decided to focus on one of Tuscany’s most celebrated composers: Giacomo Puccini. His operas have become standards of performance repertoire, with classics such as La bohème, Tosca, and Turandot. While these works are true masterpieces, their breadth of emotional intensity is too overwhelming for this dish. A meal that takes under 20 minutes and has only 10 ingredients won’t do justice to a work that can bring even the strongest of men to tears. That was when I remembered another gem of Puccini’s that would be perfect: the one-act opera Gianni Schicchi. This work, based on the Dante’s Divine Comedy, is much lighter in character and shorter in length. It is the third and final installment of the series “Il Trittico.” Gianni Schicchi is the most famous of the three, and has one of the most famous soprano arias: “O mio babbino caro.” The aria is sung by Lauretta (daughter of Gianni Schicchi) imploring her father to approve of the man she loves.* Here is a great recording of the aria, with soprano Montserrat Caballé (thanks Tim Wilfong!) Enjoy!

Sources Cited:
* “Montecristo.” 
** “Gianni Schicchi.”

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