On the pieces which never leave

“I only mean to show what cooking is: an act of gathering in and meting out, a coherent story that starts with the lighting of a burner, the filling of a pot, and keeps going as long as we like. So, our end I think is clear. If our meal will be ongoing, then our only task is to begin.” - Tamar Adler

There are days when meals seem to fall from the ether—without much thought there is a nutty cheese and the briny tang of pickled anything to go with whatever vegetables happen to be in the fridge. They are moments of carnal bliss, when the planning of the day falls quickly to the need of meal. There ought to be no thought of composition, but merely the meddling of what is good.

Is that basil in my wine glass? Absolutely.

Is that basil in my wine glass? Absolutely.

And there are other days where only one particular dish will do, creativity and fluidity be damned. As I get older, I find greater comfort in these dishes, especially when surrounded by familiar faces and those looks from childhood we can somehow decipher quickly and without thought. There is often a shared history, a moment inside of that particular dish which the soul finds more satisfying than the thrill of new, new, new.  They are the pieces which never leave us.

So on Sunday when my brother was wrapping up his week-long visit, we indulged a desire for a family classic: chicken parmigiana with fettucini alfredo. Years ago, when we were both in our early teens, our parents would make plans to meet up with Aunt and Uncle at an Olive Garden halfway between our homes. In retrospect, and with some embarrassment, it seems silly to drive the hour and half for a poor excuse of an Italian meal, but we didn’t care. What mattered was the light-hearted conversation that extended late into the night. In a restaurant where the waiters are trying to flip tables, we would refuse to move, my parents would sidle up next to good conversation, while my brother and I delighted in the chance to be a part of the “adult world”.

Long after the Olive Garden rendezvous ended, my brother and I would work to perfect this dish to the tastes of our pre-teen selves. Panko for the tell-tale crunch, too much whole milk mozzarella melted and browned on top, and an alfredo that will send you straight to the cardiologist. It was, and remains, beautiful to my Midwestern heart. My brother is never quite satisfied with the results and I think we will always find changes to make, but that doesn’t stop the childish grin we both have when we decide to try and make it again.

Chicken parmigiana, is quite frankly, an anchor meal. It reminds me of all the ways family is, and can be, great. The way we used to anticipate these meetings, limiting our lunches to have room for entrée and dessert, how my parents giggled throughout the whole meal, and how we’d decompress as a family in the car ride home. This is what food is about, regardless of source. And so I can think of no better dish with which to start our Everlasting Meal.

Chicken Parmigiana
Serves Four

This is unapologetically comfort food and is to only be eaten when no guilt will stop you. While we always serve ours alongside fettucini alfredo and a striking lack of anything with cell walls, feel free to serve on a bed of your favorite greens. Herb blends or arugula are especially good at cutting the richness.

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 ½ c. panko bread crumbs
1 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour
¼ c. freshly shredded parmesan cheese (don’t use the canned stuff)
1 T. dried oregano
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ c. vegetable oil
1 c. shredded whole milk mozzarella
1 can diced tomatoes (use fresh if in season or your favorite tomato sauce)
Salt and Pepper

Using a very sharp knife, slice each chicken breast lengthwise—be sure to place your hand flat across the top of your chicken breast as you slice through. You will be able to feel the knife underneath and can gauge if you’re getting an equal thickness. With a paper towel, dry your chicken breast halves thoroughly and season liberally with salt and pepper.

Prepare your dipping station by placing the flour in one flat dish (pie plates work well), the egg in another, and the panko bread crumbs, oregano, and parmesan in a third dish. Dip each chicken breast into the flour (shake off excess), the egg (shake off excess), and the bread crumbs. Take time to press the panko into the chicken in order to get full coverage. Transfer to a clean plate.

Turn broiler on high and place oven rack 5 inches from the heat. Preheat the vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet until shimmering. In a small saucepan, heat tomatoes over medium heat. In batches, brown chicken in oil until golden all around (2-3 minutes per side) and place on a cookie sheet. Once the tomatoes are warm, use the back of a fork or potato masher to crush them into a desired consistency (if using tomato sauce, skip this step). Spoon tomatoes on chicken and cover with mozzarella. Broil until mozzarella is bubbly and just starting to brown.

Serve with your favorite pasta or on a bed of lightly oiled greens.