Versions of this quick n’ easy “Chicken Parm” have been kicking around the internet for years. And trust me, they caught my attention, first for their lower fat content, but second, for their ease. The healthy brilliance of this dish lies in replacing the fatty breading usually associated with Chicken “Parm” with a crouton topping instead. Voila, no flour, egg, and breadcrumb coating, and no butter and oil to fry the whole shebang. Just put together white meat chicken, red sauce, basil, croutons, and some cheese, bake it, and you’ve got dinner in an hour.
But we are a gluten and dairy-free household, so existing incarnations of the recipe were still no good for us. I decided to deconstruct this dish for those of us with food allergies and intolerances. The gluten part wasn’t so hard. I made my own gluten-free croutons, which my kids liked so much, they requested a steady supply for snacking. Here’s a little secret: gluten-free bread was born to be made into croutons.
The cheese part? Not so simple. Vegan cheese doesn’t behave like good ol’ dairy. For this casserole to work, I decided I needed thinly sliced Daiya, not shreds, for good coverage and meltability. And Daiya is temperamental. Baked too long, it turns hard and brittle, too short, and it’s goopy. I experimented with varying amounts, and times, and settled on using less cheese than traditional recipes (read: less fat), and to add the cheese and croutons in the second half of cook time, for a melted but still soft cheesy topping, with crunchy croutons in tact. Please note that thinly sliced Daiya mozzarella is available at the deli counter at Whole Foods. Ask them to slice block Daiya thin for you. Or buy the wedges and slice it super thin yourself.
If you like, you could go one step simpler for weeknight prep on this recipe, by using store-bought marinara, but making your own takes all of 17 minutes, and again, let’s you streamline the fat and sodium content for one of the world’s healthiest sauces. The sauce can be made in advance and will keep at least 1 week tightly covered in the refrigerator. The croutons can also be made in advance. Just be sure they’re completely cool before storing at room temperature in an airtight container.
Chicken “Parm” Casserole with Gluten-Free Garlic Croutons
Gluten-Free Garlic Croutons:
(Makes 3 cups)
6 Tablespoons EVOO
4 medium cloves garlic, pressed, or minced fine (1 Tablespoon)
½ teaspoon Kosher salt
½ teaspoon dried oregano, crushed between your fingers
5 heaping cups gluten-free* white bread, cut into ½-inch cubes (about 8 slices, preferably stale)
4 cups Easy Chunky Marinara
2 pounds chicken tenders
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 ounces thinly sliced Daiya “Mozzarella”
6-8 leaves basil, for garnish
1. To make croutons preheat oven to 350°F. Combine EVOO, garlic, salt, and oregano in a small bowl, whisking well to combine.
2. Put bread cubes in a large bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil mixture, tossing gently with a rubber spatula. Use the rubber spatula to scrape out all the oil mixture onto the bread cubes. Once tossed to coat evenly, transfer bread cubes to a baking tray, evenly spaced into a single layer. Bake 20-25 minutes, using a spatula to turn the croutons once halfway through baking, until lightly golden and dry. Note that staler bread will bake more quickly, since it has less moisture to bake out. Transfer croutons from oven to a wire cooling rack, and let cool to room temperature.
3. Meanwhile, make the Easy Chunky Marinara sauce. Set aside.
4. To assemble the casserole, wash and pat the chicken tenders dry. Sprinkle both sides liberally with salt and pepper. Spread 1 cup of marinara in the bottom of a 9 x 12-inch baking dish. Transfer the tenders to the baking dish in a single layer.
5. Spoon 2 cups of marinara evenly over chicken, making sure all the tenders are covered with sauce. Bake in center of oven 20 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven, and layer on half the thinly sliced cheese in a single layer. Top evenly with the croutons. Top croutons with the remaining half of the cheese. Bake 20 minutes more, until the sauce is bubbling up around the edges and the cheese has melted, and the chicken registers 155°F-160°F on a meat thermometer. (Please note that really small tenders might take 5 minutes less, so check them early.)
7. Transfer casserole from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before serving. Serve garnished with coarsely torn basil, or cut into a chiffonade. Cut casserole into servings, and transfer to a plate with a spatula. Serve with a little of the remaining marinara sauce on the side.
* For allergy-friendly bread that’s gluten-free and free of the top-8 allergens, see Ener-G.
Allergy-Free Chicken “Parm” with Gluten-Free Garlic Croutons © 2012 by Cybele Pascal (This recipe first appeared in the September issue of Easy Eats)
Please note that all my recipes are completely free of all top allergens (wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish, shellfish, and gluten), so as many people as possible can enjoy them. Additionally, all the ingredients are available at Whole Foods, and online at Amazon.com. If you have trouble finding something, let me know and I’ll help you find it.
SAFETY NOTE: Because each person’s food sensitivity and reaction is unique, ranging from mild intolerance to life-threatening and severe food allergies, it is up to the consumer to monitor ingredients and manufacturing conditions. If manufacturing conditions, potential cross contact between foods, and ingredient derivatives pose a risk for you, please re-read all food labels and call the manufacturer to confirm potential allergen concerns before consumption. Ingredients and manufacturing practices can change overnight and without warning.