Updated: Apr 30, 2020
By David Sherman
I figure I’ve had 42,000 pieces of toast in my life, give or take. Some of it, the commercial wheat toast greasy spoons serve, tasted like sawdust. Some that I had at home or in spots where breakfast was more than $6.99, ersatz coffee included, was not bad. The bread from the slow-rise bakery, 15 kms from home is great, especially when eaten fresh from the oven and as soon as I can slice it and get it on the table. Anyone who toasts the staff of life fresh from the bakery is a barbarian. Don’t tell the woman I share my life with. She toasts. It’s her only flaw.
Take the best slow-rise sourdough grain bread, drop it into a toaster and it’s toast. Figuratively and literally. It’s an after-thought, rather than the star of the show, it's relegated to a necessary carb but without panache or imagination.
Of late, scenes from films, Julie and Julia, and Jon Favreau’s, Chef, where he lovingly makes his son a grilled cheese, have revolutionized my breakfasts. Sometimes lunch.
Now, more often than not, I fry bread. Thick slices of bread. Slow-rise, what some call sour dough, made with grains and nuts, vegetables and sometimes cheese or herbs. It’s toothsome and fulsome and a break from the routine of waiting for the toaster to pop. It’s also quick and easy. And, somehow, atavistic, even romantic.
I watch the baker kneed breads while I stand at the display case, choosing a few loaves. I watch him slide them gracefully from the oven to the counter, from the counter to the shelves, watch the clerk take it in her giant tongs and slide it into a brown paper bag. Remember those? This is a baker that offers neither slicing machine or plastic bag.
Now, to take this warm, alive, handmade loaf, slice it and drop it carelessly into an electric machine to be heartlessly grilled seems sacrilegious. To fry it, by hand, in a bath of good olive oil and fresh butter, is the difference between applying a heating pad to your aching back or sliding into a hot tub. In ritual, even the simplest of technology is an intrusion. Bread made by hand deserves love.
If you’re going to try getting fried in the morning, avoid commercial bread, which is mostly air. You want bread that will give the knife some fight when you cut it, that won’t wave the white flag and surrender on your plate into a soggy mess. You want bread that bites back. You want food.
Cut a slab an inch thick, give or take, pour some olive oil and drop a chunk of butter into a cast iron fry pan or any good pan that heats evenly. Set the stove at medium and wait until the oil and butter combo seems hot. And slide a slice or two into the simmering juice and slide it around a bit with your fingers, so you feel like a macho chef. Burns and scars are badges of courage.
This process takes only a few minutes so this is the time to prepare whatever you wish to adorn the fried bread. Fried bread is a food delivery platform, designed to hold and grace and improve anything you wish to eat. Better yet, it’s a foolproof way to rescue stale bread.
These days there are better than decent greenhouse tomatoes in our neighbourhood. Sometimes I like to slice some thick slabs, salt them and let them brine until the bread is ready. Lift a corner of the happily sizzling bread to check. You’re looking for the proverbial golden-brown crust. You’ll know it when you see it and when you do, flip it. You can use a spatula or your fingers, if you do it gingerly.
If you’re going for the simplicity and sweetness of fresh tomatoes for a light breakfast, you’re done. You could brush a bit of mayo on or mustard or go straight. You just have to wait for the other side to bronze. But, if you’re feeling ambitious, once you flip the bread, you want to take advantage of that hot, golden side.
You can opt for mayo or mustard with a bit of sweetness and spice. Then lay on a slice or two of cheese, using the heat of the bread to soften it. Then lay a slice of prosciutto or ham or turkey, cold, or room temperature if you’re not too asleep to think ahead. Or, if duly caffeinated, give the cured meat a quick pan fry and set it aside. You can also pop on something green – arugula, spinach, lettuce. It’s your canvas.
If you plan to drop an egg on top, fry one now, as long as you have a hot pan waiting. You can also fry bacon or sausage meat.
One of my favourite concoctions is to pull the sausage meat from its casing and crumble or chop it. I try to use sausage that has neither cellulose, bread crumbs or milk products. Some butchers make good natural sausage. Jamie Oliver markets a few varieties without filler, made with humanely raised pork.
Once the sausage has fried a bit, toss in some chopped tomato. When that’s frying, chop some coriander or parsley or both and put it on hold. Or neither. Your call.
If you’re really cooking, the fried bread should be crisp and golden just as the sausage and tomato mixture is done. Pour that combo into a small bowl, stir in your mixture of greens, a little olive oil, a touch of lemon juice, salt and pepper, slide your beautiful crispy bread on a plate and pour the mixture on top of it.
If you want simpler, just drop an egg on, with or without cheese. Mustard works well.
But there are no limits to the wonders of what you can do with a good quality bread fried in olive oil and butter. Olive oil is health food, at least according to this month’s health advice. Butter Is butter. A little pat’ll do you.
I’ve topped my crispy fried bread with baked beans and an egg or two, left over pasta sauce, tuna and chopped hard-boiled egg, bacon, tomato and cheese.
It’s quick and easy and, if you’re lucky, you might scar a finger or two and look like a real chef. Best part, it tastes great.
If it’s your first breakfast together with someone who spent the night, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be back for more.