For a few summers I worked as a camp counselor at sleep-away camp, which means in addition to pushing the limits of shower-less days, I also ate what the camp cook prepared — except on the weekends. On the weekends you had to fend for yourself while making the most of the ingredients they kept stocked in the kitchen.
One helpless Saturday evening, I found myself scanning the back of a jar of mayo (of which there were many) to find a dead simple recipe for chicken that intrigued me: Take a few chicken breasts, coat them in a mixture of mayo and Parmesan cheese, top with breadcrumbs, and bake. That's it?
Most of the chicken I grew up eating came curried, so this was new territory and I was curious. Curious because I had everything to make this — except the chicken— and I was still going to do it anyway.
At this point in my life I wasn't eating meat, but I could still imagine how a recipe featuring meat would work. Mayo was just eggs and oil, right? There was some cheese, some breadcrumbs — this recipe should work on anything. Maybe it would even work on that lonely eggplant that had been hanging out in the staff fridge, a perplexing vegetable to the gaggle of us 20-year-olds.
So I tried this recipe on eggplant. I mixed together the mayo and the cheese, slathered it over fat rounds of eggplant, and topped them with breadcrumbs. Into the oven they went to cook. A few of my friends hung around in the kitchen, curious about how it was going to turn out. I was eager too.
Chickens ... eggs ... eggplant. This is totally going to work.
And it did! The mayo sunk into the eggplant, so it kind of fried in the oven as it baked. Each round developed a crispy, crunchy crust from the cheese and breadcrumbs and because of the oil in the mayo, the breadcrumbs actually cooked up golden-brown, rather than the anemic color they so often remain when they're used in the absence for fat. I was surprised! It worked.
The truth is, I've made this recipe with chicken since and find it pretty underwhelming in comparison to the way it shines with eggplant. But I feel a little indebted to it because now it's the first recipe I share with people when they ask me for a way to cook eggplant. This technique is delightfully surprising in its simplicity, keeps its promise of being delicious, and comes with enough of a story to persuade people to try it. Even the mayo-haters!
So yes, this is my favorite recipe for chicken breast. Only, I just make it with eggplant.
Have you tried this back of the jar recipe? Do you have recipes that were intended for one thing that you use in an entirely different way?