I have a particular fondness for “sleeper” recipes. More often than not, the dishes that earn a place in my heart, and that make repeat appearances at my dinner table, are the unassuming ones that require no special ingredients or complicated techniques. They aren’t the kinds of recipes that set trends (sorry trend watchers–no candied bacon or duck fat here). They’re like the quiet kids in the class; they don’t command a lot of attention but they get their work done and they do it well.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this preference. Even for those of us who enjoy a good challenge in the kitchen, there is something enormously satisfying about sitting down to a plate of food that is simple and honest and that delivers a lot for very little. A dish of spaghetti aglio & olio, for example, or my Zia Gilda’s pancotto (“cooked bread” soup).
Quite a few years ago I came across a recipe in Gourmet magazine. It was the January 2001 issue and the cover showed a gorgeous, meticulously decorated layer cake. The recipe that caught my eye however, was one printed in “Sugar and Spice”—the section of the magazine that contained letters from readers. The writer, who described herself as of Sicilian descent, spoke with great affection of her late mother’s egg patties, made with a mixture of eggs, bread crumbs, cheese, and parsley. My kids were very young at the time—4 and 2 1/2—and those egg patties, or “cutlets” as I dubbed them, seemed like the perfect form of nourishment—easy to eat and easy to digest.
They were also a great example of Italy’s ingenious “cucina povera” (poor man’s cooking), with bread crumbs, eggs, and cheese standing in for meat. Thick batter is dropped by the spoonful into a hot skillet filmed with oil.The cutlets begin to take shape immediately, bubbling around the edges. When you turn them, they puff gently, like pancakes. After they are cooked, the cutlets are simmered briefly in tomato sauce, absorbing some of the sauce’s moisture as well as its flavor.
The first time I made these cutlets I marveled at how good they were, light yet substantial, and mildly garlicky. My kids loved them (though my son in those days preferred them without the sauce). I made egg cutlets regularly for several years and then, somehow, they fell out of our dinner repertoire. I guess I figured that the kids, whose palates were becoming more adventurous, might find them too ordinary.
The other day I was making bread crumbs intended for an altogether different recipe when it struck me how long it had been—years—since I had made egg cutlets. I dug out the old Gourmet issue, took the eggs out of the fridge and got to work. As the first batch of patties was frying in the skillet my daughter came into the kitchen to investigate. “I recognize that smell!” she exclaimed. She looked at the bubbling cutlets. “What are those? They look sooooo good!” To my slight dismay she had no recollection of the patties themselves, though their warm eggy aroma had been planted in her memory. I decided the time had come to invite egg cutlets back to the dinner table.
By the way, not only are egg cutlets nourishing and delicious, they also make a fine vegetarian main course for Meatless Monday, if you participate in that, and also for Lent, if you happen to observe that ritual. But you certainly don’t need a reason to make egg cutlets. They are that good.
(adapted from Gourmet 2001)
- For the tomato sauce:
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 cups canned chopped or diced tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 1/2 cup water
- For the egg cutlets:
- 1/2 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Make the sauce: Heat the oil and onion in a saucepan placed over medium-low heat. Cook for about 7 minutes, until the onion is softened. Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute, until it releases its fragrance. Stir in the tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat and cook for about 15 minutes, until the sauce is thickened. Stir in the basil and water and remove from the heat. Cover and set aside.
Make the egg cutlets: Combine the bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, and garlic in a bowl and stir well. Stir in the eggs, salt, and pepper to taste. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 12-inch skillet over moderate heat until shimmering but not smoking. Drop 3 to 4 rounded tablespoons of egg batter into the skillet. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the edges are set and the cutlet is nicely browned on the bottom. Using an angled spatula, turn the cutlets and cook another 2 minutes, until browned on the bottom. Transfer the cutlets to a paper towel-lined plate. Continue to cook the remaining cutlets in the same way, adding additional oil to the skillet if necessary.
Pour the tomato sauce into the skillet and arrange the cutlets in the sauce (they will fit snugly). Simmer over medium heat, turning the cutlets once, until heated through. Serve the cutlets, three to a person, with sauce spooned over them.
Cook's Note: The cutlets can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to 2 days and frozen for up to 1 month.