Day one: Listen to PBS interview of famous cook about his new book called “how to cook everything quick” and wonder if he meant quickly. Recipe for chicken parmesan sounds interesting but am driving car so cannot write down. Also he calls it “Chicken Parm” which is either charming or useless cuteness, cannot tell. Saving time on title of recipe?
Day two: Go on internet, find famous cook and his YouTube pitch for said recipe. But it is a little vague. However, am not interested in buying $25 cook book for one small recipe. Besides it looks easy. Take vague notes.
Day three: OK, no problem, have purchased nice food and am ready to do this as a surprise for wonderful girlfriend who is off at a conference and eating conference food, poor thing. Good boyfriend practice.
To begin (I am sure of this part) put rimmed cookie sheet, lightly coated with oil, in the broiler and turn on same. Think to self that technically this is a jelly roll pan but when was last time anyone in America made jelly roll? First Nixon presidency?
Sharpen knife since knives we have are not sharp enough except to cut yourself. Not good at cutting other stuff.
Take two boneless chicken breasts, slice horizontally in half, pound lightly to even out thickness. Notice how interested the kittens are in the whole process. Think to self, “How cute, they want to learn to cook!” No, they want to jump up on the counter and eat raw chicken breasts.
Slice up three fresh and beautiful tomatoes into thick slices.
Take cookie sheet out of oven, notice oil is smoking a bit. Also oven. Say small prayer of thanks that all smoke alarms near the kitchen have been disabled. Some with ball peen hammer. Maybe it was just the batteries. Think about last house where smoke alarms that would not turn off were eventually pulled from the ceiling with large crowbar, bringing down with them dry wall, insulation and copious amounts of mouse dung. But in bedroom, not kitchen. Another good reason not to be on east coast. Mouses carry dengue fever or something like that. Transmitted in mouse poop. In whatever manner does virus get from mouse effluvia into human person, we wonder?
Resolve to think less clinically. Shake head and get back to reality.
Put first chicken piece on hot oily pan, noting loud sizzle and chicken immediately sticking to pan. Move more carefully on remaining pieces. Oil seems to have pooled around edges of pan, while chicken is in middle. Not good. Nice to have chisel to remove chicken when done.
Place cute tomato slices on top of chicken breast filets, two per filet. Burn hand slightly on cookie sheet. Do not curse as this would be bad example for kittens.
This time using many hot pads, put still very hot cookie sheet back in what appears to be mouth of hell but is only smoking very hot oven with broiler really working, perhaps for the only time since the house was built. Famous Cook Mark Bittman says that broilers are just upside down grills. Begin to wonder about Mark Bittman’s view of life. Upside down?
While chicken cooks, quickly grate soft cheese, supposed to be mozzarella but instead use up mysterious yellow/white chunk of large cheese left over from party in June. Cannot use all of same, as cheese came from Costco and was delivered on semi-trailer. Still lots left. Fastidiously cut off cheese part turning white and blue with mold, although friends who have become amateur cheese makers say that cheese mold is both harmless and adds flavor to the cheese. Note that flavor added seems to resemble gym socks on bad day.
Then grate some left over parmesan, first taking off rind with big sharp knife. Acknowledge that while a glass of wine would have been nice, better not to amputate one or two fingers. Slow going, as rind is very hard to cut. Parmesan may have come from June party as well, cannot be sure. Think about all the recipes from hefty Italian women that require parmesan cheese rinds, then throw rind away anyway. This is not Venice, thank you very much. Cats are bigger there.
Finally take pieces of not very good Italian bread purchased from Persian green grocer, and throw them in Cuisinart as well. Problem is that recipe calls for day old bread, but these pieces have only been sitting out since noon when decided to make this 15 minute easy recipe and thus are not dry enough. But that is what powerful, direct drive, real Cuisinart is for. Initiate grinding.
Notice that large pieces of bread stick like limpets, whatever they are, to the Cuisinart blade and resolutely refuse to become bread crumbs. Remember Mark Bittman on PBS – some large crumbs are good, make topping crispier.
Empty bread crumbs into too small bowl, begin mixing crumbs grated cheeses by hand. “Get close to the food, you can feel the texture,” says Mark. Remember too late that forgot to wash hands, so topping may have some bits of cat food in it. Oh well.
Observe while mixing that it is becoming very foggy in small kitchen and am no longer able to see to the end, all of five feet away. Oh, not fog, fog does not smell like burning oil. Turn on microwave fan/vent thing to high, and then speculate idly on where does the exhaust fan really go—into the bedroom? No vents visible on roof.
This distracting interior air quality speculation causes mixing of two cheeses and bread “crumbs,” some the size of icebergs, to be less than perfect with 25 percent ending up outside of the bowl. “Get out while you still can!” says one softball sized bread crumb to another.
Vision now down to 3 feet, not enough to land a 727 in kitchen, worry about downstairs smoke alarm. Flash of inspiration—during rare heat wave in August bought cheap but big fan at CVS and even put it together after got CVS to send several missing parts. Big upright fan, like one used to simulate hurricanes. Well maybe simulation done in small wind tunnels, perhaps the size of a dryer exhaust. Get fan, turn it on, add it to the exhaust power directed to window at the end of kitchen.
Remove from oven very highly smoking chicken with tomatoes burned black on top, set down—wait—where do I put this pan! it is freaking hot! Damn, damn!—finally put on stove fortunately mostly on unused burner and unfortunately partly on control knobs inexplicably made of plastic. Melting knobs add somewhat to toxic smoke.
Now for final touch, add bread crumb cheese and cheese mixture topping to cover burned tomatoes. Topping immediately falls off tomatoes into pan. Add more topping. Chicken breasts each begin to look like Mount Palomar but with no telescope. Supposed to be beautiful plateaus not Rocky Mountains.
Think about coal plants and how storing coal is done on the ground. Critical variable is something called “angle of repose” which means that you cannot stack coal up to the moon, it goes into a pile and the angle of the side of the pile with a vertical is angle of repose. Bricks would be 90 degrees, as in straight up. Coal is around 55 degrees. Ping pong balls are no degrees as cannot be stacked up on each other. Bread crumbs appear also to be zero degrees as they all tumble off chicken and lie in even layer in pan.
Put pan back into oven. Pour small glass of cheap wine. Note that have forgotten to put cute and expensive fresh basil leaf on top of each tomato slice before attempting to coat with uncooperative cheese and bread crumb topping. Disregard.
Smoke now seems to be at bay. Remember that oven was not cleaned after last experiment in cooking, which was a large rib roast, fat side up. This explains so much.
Whoops, nope, smoke just gone underground, now re-emerges. Turn fan to high. No, that’s low, fan was already on high. Set timer to six minutes, although hard to see through smoke. Mark Bittman never uses timer or tells you how long to cook stuff. At least not on television.
At four minutes fear that all is lost. Open oven and squint into interior which resembles the wrong end of flame thrower. Bread crumbs and bread lumps and bread boulders all burned black, many as feared having rolled down the slopes of their individual chicken lumps. Entire cookie sheet is covered with large chunks of charcoal appearing bread pieces. Tomatoes don’t look much better. Nothing is actually on fire, however.
Turn off iron smelting piece of capital equipment formerly known as broiler. Open windows further. Wonder if kittens have moved to Cleveland. Pour more cheap wine. Despite eyes watering from smoke irritation, go on internet and look up on Godaddy to see if URL for www.ihatemarkbittman.com is available. It is already taken.
Robert Hemphill is an author and former senior executive with a global power company. His most recent book is Dust Tea, Dingoes and Dragons, a humorous look at international business. Learn more at www.rfhemphill.com or on Facebook at Facebook/pages/RF-Hemphill.