Posted on Tuesday, March 15, 2011.
I used to think I was a good cook before I met my husband. I’d mastered most of the comfort foods I’d grown up with by the time we met—pastas, meatballs, cutlets—and thought it was more than most single girls could say for themselves. And I could follow directions well, which is why I clung to baking: give me a recipe and a houseful of ingredients and I could make people happy.
But then I met Joe, and my confidences in the kitchen quickly deflated. It’s no fault of his—he’s just one of those people who can take scraps from a refrigerator (the same refrigerator you swear has nothing in it), throw in some spices from your dusty cupboard (the cupboard you haven’t dared open in months), and come out the other end with a seriously impressive meal. He just knows what goes with what, and what doesn’t. No one ever told him that mangoes might go well in a chicken stir fry, or that if you put stale bread at the bottom of a casserole dish and top it with chicken and frozen vegetables, magical things will happen. It’s just something he knows on instinct; the kind of talent you can’t fake.
My favorite of Joe’s kitchen inventions is something we’ve come to call “Famous Bread.” It started last fall when we were overloaded with leftover focaccia from a dinner party. After five too many sandwiches, Joe got to work on a weeknight dinner that I couldn’t quite figure out. He got that very serious look he takes on when he’s experimenting in the kitchen. A dish towel was permanently perched on his shoulder, and all the doors—cabinets, fridge, freezer—were flung open. A quiet took over and I knew to stay out of the way.
The best part of “Famous Bread” is the crispy, caramelized bread at the bottom (hence the “famous” part). You’re almost eating through everything else, great as it is, just to get to the bread. And you can truly pile anything you want on this. The trick, Joe says, is to keep the broccoli frozen so it releases moisture as it thaws in the oven. And keep it covered so everything steams. You end up with the perfect casserole-type concoction. This is comfort food at its very best.
I think this dish was inspired by Joe’s passion for piles of food. He always says he loves a mound of stuff heaped onto one plate, which is essentially what this is. It actually makes the perfect meal. It’s the kind of dinner I hope will become a classic in the Scalora/Gagliano household years from now, everyone cheering when we find out it’s “Famous Bread” night. And while I guess the old-school lady in me should be bothered that our kids will like his cooking better than mine, I’m not. I can always lure them with my baking. And I can always woo Joe with my mean dish washing skills.
Joe’s Famous Bread
This is a great recipe for adapting leftovers into something new. These ingredients reflect Joe’s most recent creation, but you can use whatever inspires you. The only essential elements are the bread and a block of frozen vegetables.
6 slices stale focaccia or other hearty bread
1 white onion, thinly sliced
4 (or however many you have) boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts
1 box frozen broccoli (or other green vegetable)
2 cups kale, or other leafy green
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons Romano cheese
olive oil for drizzling
salt and pepper
Grease a casserole dish with olive oil and line the bottom with bread slices. Top the bread with onions and drizzle with olive oil. Next add the chicken, covering as much of the onion surface as possible. Season with salt and pepper. If you’re using chicken breasts, drizzle them with olive oil so they don’t dry out. Plop the frozen vegetable block on top of the chicken. Season again with salt and pepper.
In a separate bowl, toss the garlic and kale or other leafy vegetable with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Place around the frozen vegetable block, along the edge of the casserole dish.
Drizzle everything with lemon juice and top with Romano cheese.
Cover with aluminum foil. Bake covered at 350 degrees F for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking for another 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the bread is brown and crispy.
P.S. I did not grace you with a photo of the whole mess since “Joe’s Famous Bread” is NOT very photogenic. But believe me, you won’t care.