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Just as writers can suffer from writer’s block, cooks can suffer from “cooking block.” If you are ever feeling uninspired or fatigued, a prompt or constraint can lead to exciting ideas, clarity, and productivity. For example, if you are asked to cook dinner for a group of vegetarians, your menu might end up being more focused, and your flavors more precise, than if you had been given free rein to cook anything.
Here’s a fun constraint: Prepare a big pile of grilled bread, and serve a menu where every dish on the table invites the guests to use the grilled bread to sop up some sort of excess sauce. The act of taking a piece of bread and using it to soak up the flavors of a dish is such a beautiful thing Italians even have a specific word for it: Scarpetta, which literally means using bread to wipe up any extra sauces, pan drippings, or braising liquids.
My favorite recipe to pair with grilled bread is steamed clams. The rich, briny, garlicky broth of steamed clams is the perfect match for a thick slice of lightly charred bread. In fact, many will even argue that a bite of grilled bread dipped in the clam broth is better than the actual clams themselves. Personally, when serving steamed clams, I like to find a large shallow serving platter and place some grilled bread on the bottom of the platter before ladling the steamed clams and their broth over the top of the bread. When the clams are all eaten, the resulting bread is soft and luscious, so oversaturated with broth you might have to eat it with a fork and knife.
When making steamed clams, keep in mind all the clams will cook at different rates. I like to have a large metal mixing bowl next to the stovetop, and as each clam opens during the cooking process, remove with a pair of tongs into the mixing bowl. This way, the open clams don’t become rubbery and overcooked while you wait for the rest of the clams to finish up. When all of your clams open, return them to the pot and serve them.
The inspiration for an entire meal to highlight scarpetta came from a wonderful experience I had recently at a restaurant located deep in Queens, New York, called Don Peppe. They serve classic Italian-American dishes like eggplant parmigiana, zuppa di mussels, and linguini with clam sauce. At the beginning of your meal, they bring you a large loaf of fresh bread, and the message is clear: Use this bread, dip it in every sauce you see, and soak up all the goodness around you. The meal is basically a love letter to the act of scarpetta, and I can’t remember the last time I left a restaurant feeling so happy and satisfied.
Whether you are preparing a full scarpetta feast or simply cooking a single recipe of steamed clams, remember lightly grilling your bread will add an extra layer of elation to your meal. For those of us waiting for the cold winter to show some signs of abating, you might find dipping grilled bread in clam broth will help you make it through the doldrums of February.
- 18 littleneck clams, scrubbed under cold water
- 4 thick slices of rustic bread
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 pinch dried chili flakes
- 1.5 cups dry white wine
- A few sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
- 1 handful roughly chopped parsley leaves, for garnish
Tell us: What would you serve grilled bread with?