How I Invented Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza, Like a Total Idiot

Last week I made a very large quantity of meatballs of the type you’d serve with spaghetti. Some of them were earmarked to go to a friend, some of them earmarked for domestic consumption here. They were an experiment in gluten-free cookery, by the friend’s request. Now I am someone who mocks gluten-free labeling but on the other hand, if someone really needs gluten-free food I will totally try to be helpful. My instinct, which was confirmed by cursory internet research, was that I could reasonably substitute dried potato flakes for bread crumbs and things would turn out okay. This turned out to be not exactly the case — the meatballs were edible, sure, and we’ve all eaten worse things, but they utterly lacked the fluffiness that my gluten-loving family has come to expect in a meatball.

The meatballs I normally make are beloved by my husband and child. My husband has been shown more than once how I make meatballs and yet somehow whenever he tries to make them, they don’t come out the way he thinks they should; they are not like mine. I have no idea what causes this difference, but it is absolutely true: his meatballs are not as good as mine.

Still, these gluten-free meatballs were a challenge; they were simply not as satisfying as my regular meatballs, and so they didn’t get snarfed down with the speed they usually do. The result is that I’ve had leftover meatballs around the house longer than usual, and it’s fallen to me to think of nice ways to put them into other things, to use them up and not see them go to waste.

It was on a frantically busy day midweek, a day when I wasn’t going to be at home at dinnertime, when I realized that one thing I could do with the meatballs was chop them up and mix them with a lot of shredded mozzarella and some tomato sauce, and put that on Italian bread. I spread the sliced loaf with pimiento cheese, to give a base layer of something extra-savory, and then I spread the meatball/cheese mixture on top of that. I left this on a tray in the oven, left the house, and my husband baked the stuff when he came home from work. This was an excellent plan, I said to myself in congratulations: I could attend my PTA meeting, which started at 6 p.m., and get home at 8.30, and everything would be fine. No one would go hungry.

So: this is what happened. My daughter and I went to the PTA meeting — where she was fed pizza while I slogged through the meeting — and when we got home at 8.30, my husband was sitting on the couch looking pretty darn happy. “That was great, the meatballs and cheese on the bread,” he said. I thought, “huh, interesting.” This was the kind of dead simple easy dinner trick people had been performing for decades, I was sure, but it was only occurring to me now and I felt stupid. What had taken me so long to realize that I could do this, and go to my evening meetings and still feel I’d fed everyone properly? Normally I make pizzas with dough I’ve made myself, and they’re really good, but they really require that I am in the kitchen to assemble and bake. This was a pizza that I could fake ahead of time. Fucking genius, right?

Two nights later I made a “nice” dinner for my family and they were politely underwhelmed. I’d made a fluffy cheese-dosed polenta and ratatouille, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly thrilling, either. Halfway through the meal I was already thinking, “what am I going to do to use up this ratatouille?” And it wasn’t even that much I’d made — just one eggplant, one yellow squash…. somehow, though, it didn’t speak to anyone.

Saturday was busy, and all of us were kind of sick of each other, it seemed to me, by four in the afternoon — I was exhausted, my daughter antsy, my husband preoccupied with work matters: it was decided we would go to the video store, rent some movies (yes, we do this, it’s so retro, isn’t it?), and have a calm evening at home. “I need to pick up a loaf of Italian bread,” I said to my husband, “and some mozzarella.” “Okay,” he said, “you going to make another one of those Stouffer’s French Bread Pizzas?”

I laughed. “Yeah, but with Italian bread,” I admitted. “You said you liked it, the other night?”

“It was great,” he said.

So I went and bought a big loaf of bread — actually, they didn’t have a loaf of the stuff I’d originally had in mind so I bought something classier, a ciabatta loaf from an artisinal bakery, but from the day-old bin — and I got the mozz and once home I assembled dinner.

This was so easy, let me tell you, it’s basically an embarrassment; I can’t call this cooking. But I will tell you what I did, so it should inspire you in the future when you’re staring into the fridge going “shit shit shit what can I make? I have meatballs but if I serve spaghetti again someone’s gonna throw spaghetti against the wall.”

I took the loaf of bread, split it lengthwise, and, again, spread a fairly thick layer of pimiento cheese on it. This was pimiento cheese I’d made with Monterey Jack, Cheddar, and a hefty dose of horseradish in addition to the peppers and mayo, so it had a good solid kick to it. This step, you could skip, or adapt to work with whatever stuff you have around your house. Maybe even just spreading some mayo on the bread would be a  good idea. This is obviously a super-flexible process.
Then I grated about 4 ounces of cheap mozzarella and again mixed it with some chopped up meatballs and tomato sauce. And — this was the masterstroke, for me, Saturday night — I took the ratatouille and spread a few tablespoons of it across one of the half-loaves. (I knew my daughter wouldn’t want any, and assumed my husband wouldn’t want it either, so I limited myself to the section I would be eating.) Then I layered on the meatball/sauce/cheese mess. This went into a 350° oven for about 15 minutes? and when it was nice and bubbly looking I took it out and sliced it up. We put on an appallingly stupid movie our daughter had selected (Bill Murray and Janeane Garofalo’s Larger Than Life) and sat down to eat.

“This is good,” my daughter admitted.

“It’s really good,” my husband said.

I said, totally truthfully, “Mine with the ratatouille is totally awesome.”

At this, my husband looked miffed. “Only yours has ratatouille?”

“I thought no one else would want it,” I said in surprise, “so I only put it on the chunk I was gonna eat.”

“Oh,” my husband said sadly.

But I made a mental note. It is clear clear clear that if I’m willing to spend, you know, two bucks on a loaf of Italian bread, and maybe a few dollars more on some mozzarella (assuming I don’t have any on hand, which I normally do, to be honest), I can take my leftovers out of the fridge and turn them into what’s really just a homemade Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza. Sure, it’s not elegant, but also, it takes no skill whatsoever, very little time is involved in terms of prep work, and it’s something we’ll all eat happily. That, my friends, is something I think all of us — here at home, and over there at your home — can agree is a good thing. (Insert winky emoticon thingy here.)

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