I've been trying to be better about planning meals lately. For several years, since we didn't know what we'd be getting from our CSA from week to week, I didn't plan at all. I'd just open the fridge, see what was there, and come up with something. As a result, ratatouilles and fricandos were frequently on the menu. Patrick says that the way I cook is like alchemy; he's an excellent cook, but is much more recipe-driven than I am (which is not a bad thing).
Planning failed me today. We're in the middle of a nor'easter, and I just wasn't in the mood to make what was on the agenda. Plus, I had a fridge full of leftover bits of things: half a pound of pancetta (from a pasta recipe last week); about a third of a stale baguette; several egg yolks (from the wedding cake I made over the weekend); and a pie plate full of roasted potatoes, from Sunday's dinner. I also had milk and mozzarella cheese. I turned to my alchemical habits, and here's what I came up with:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Heavily butter a 9" x 13" pan. Heat a skillet and start frying the pancetta (cook it just like regular bacon), draining it on paper towels when it is cooked. Coarsely chop the pancetta. Break up the bread, put it in the food processor, and pulse it until it is fine crumbs. Put the crumbs on the counter; now grate about 4 ounces of mozzarella in the food processor.
Layer bread crumbs, the bacon, the cheese, and the potatoes a couple of times, reserving a handful of crumbs. Put the egg yolks (I think there were seven; I added one whole egg, just for some extra binding power) and a cup of milk in the food processor and blend. (I didn't add salt or pepper, since the pancetta is extra salty.) Pour the egg mixture evenly over the stuff in the pan. Top with bread crumbs and bake for a half hour. Serve with green salad.
This is comfort food at its finest--sort of like a breakfast strata. And there was a minimum of mess in the kitchen; all that got dirty was the skillet, the food processor, and the knife and cutting board.
Alchemy requires a certain amount of familiarity with the characteristics of foods and combinations of foods. If I hadn't had leftover egg yolks, I would have used three or four whole eggs instead. I could have used crackers, rolls, or regular bread instead of a stale baguette. I probably would have dried out the rolls or bread in a very low oven for awhile first. If I'd had mushrooms, I definitely would have sauteed them in the pancetta fat and thrown them in as well.
I'm sure I'll be back on plan tomorrow; automating the dinner schedule really does free up my mind for writing and other things. But a little spontaneity in the middle of a snowstorm can be a very good thing.