I've never been good at being told what to do. In the kitchen, that resistance is to blame for the testy relationship I have with cookbooks. I love them, but I'm not a paint-by-numbers cook, preferring to snag bits and pieces of four different recipes.
That's why I've always appreciated Mark Bittman's cookbooks and his New York Times columns. His recipes aren't prescriptive, they're fluid, adaptable. Don't have turmeric? Try paprika. Don't have broccoli? Try brussell sprouts or fennel.
In his new book, How to Cook Everything Fast, Bittman offers strategies and shortcuts designed to help people make healthy meals quickly. Many of the recipes have variations, like the one below.
Don't have chicken? Try eggplant.
[*Look for our interview with Bittman later this week.]
Fastest Chicken Parm*
Time: 30 Minutes
Makes: 4 servings
(*Note: The "naturally fast" techniques in the book call for doing some of the prep work while some of the ingredients are cooking. In the recipe below, the "prep" steps are italics.)
This take on the classic couldn't be easier: Instead of dredging and panfrying, just stack the ingredients in two stages on a baking sheet and broil. Done this way, the tomatoes get lightly roasted and the bread crumbs stay nice and crunchy. (For eggplant like this, see the Variations.)
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium ripe tomatoes
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
Salt and pepper
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
2 ounces Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup grated)
1 bunch fresh basil
1 cup bread crumbs
1. Turn the broiler to high; put the rack 6 inches from the heat. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet and spread it around; put the baking sheet in the broiler. Core and slice the tomatoes. Cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally to make 2 thin cutlets for each breast. Press down on each with the heel of your hand to flatten.
2. Carefully remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Put the chicken cutlets on the sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with the tomatoes, and broil on one side only until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, rotating the pan if necessary for even cooking, 5 to 10 minutes. Grate the mozzarella and Parmesan. Strip 16 to 20 basil leaves from the stems. Combine the bread crumbs, mozzarella, and Parmesan in a small bowl.
3. When the chicken is cooked through, remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Lay the basil leaves on top of the tomatoes, sprinkle with the bread crumb and cheese mixture, and drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil.
4. Return to the broiler, and cook until the bread crumbs and cheese are browned and bubbly, 2 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
Use sliced dill pickles instead of the tomatoes and Swiss cheese instead of the mozzarella. Omit the basil. Before putting the pickles on top of the chicken in Step 2, spread a little Dijon mustard on the cutlets. Instead of the Parmesan, mix 1/2 cup chopped ham into the bread crumb and Swiss topping.
Use GruyÃ¨re cheese instead of the mozzarella and 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves instead of the basil. Omit the Parmesan. Before putting the tomatoes on top of the chicken in Step 2, spread a little Dijon mustard over the cutlets.
Fastest Eggplant Parm
Instead of the chicken, slice about 2 pounds large eggplant crosswise 1 inch thick. After the pan heats in Step 2, spread out the eggplant slices"”but not the tomatoes"”and turn to coat them in some oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil until softened and browned in places, about 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the eggplant, then top with the tomatoes and proceed with the recipe from the end of Step 2.