Breadcrumbs are the surprise ingredient for tasty pasta

Friday March 22, 2013

I love it when I stumble on something surprisingly brilliant. And to have been created from an ingredient often thought of as homely, left over and better fed to the chickens makes it even better. And the fact that it has become a staple in my kitchen, especially during these sometimes blah transitional winter/spring days is even more exciting.

I’ve been experimenting with my diet of late, trying to find the right combination of foods to keep my body healthy and my soul nourished. This has meant lots of trial and error, some of it quite easy to adhere to, some of it absolutely wretched and unfair. Things like kidney beans, for instance, have been easily replaced by other beans. There is, however, no decent substitute for a good cup of coffee. Let’s just say it’s been a struggle.

One of the things I’ve been finding I need to eat less of is acidic foods. To be honest, I’ve never been able to eat many tomatoes or citrus fruits and am pretty easily satisfied with just a bite of a good ripe home-grown tomato or one section of a succulent orange. Where this intolerance of acid gets tricky is with Italian food. I can find white pizza or have my pasta with pesto, but eventually I’m looking for something with a bit more.

I found just the thing when I stopped by our friend’s house and they invited me to stay for supper. Pasta was on the menu, but with breadcrumbs. This was intriguing. First of all, the double-carbohydrate was something I was sure broke every nutrition rule I had ever been taught. Second, it sounded so҆simple. And it was simple, but certainly not simple tasting.

Gary had found this recipe in Mark Bittman’s ‘How to Cook Everything’. A variation of one of the base pasta recipes, this called for pasta tossed with olive oil and these delicious, homemade bread crumbs. Crunchy, flavored with garlic and olive oil, they added just the right contrast and texture to the slippery simplicity of the boiled noodles. I meant to get the recipe when I left that night, but forgot and was surprised at how often the meal came to mind. I never seemed to remember to ask for the recipe but instead found myself in Sue and Gary’s kitchen at a later visit, scanning the pages of the cookbook in search of the recipe and scribbling it down on a scrap of paper with a slightly ridiculous mixture of relief and anticipation.

The breadcrumbs were simple enough - bread crumbs sautéed in a fair amount of garlic-scented olive oil. Concerned about having enough bread for lunches the next day, I scrounged through the bread drawer for the discarded and lonely heels that my family leaves uneaten and then I trimmed an end off the current ‘in use’ loaf, about three slices in all. I pulsed them in the food processor using the blade attachment, a bit surprised at how much pulsing it took to get the bread to a small enough crumb. I ended up with about three-quarter cup of crumbs, which surprised me somehow, as I didn’t think I had started with that much bread in the first place. Well, I considered, might as well make them all.

I warmed about one-quarter cup of olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and added the breadcrumbs, stirring until well coated. I kept my eye on the pan while preparing the pasta and salad, stirring whenever my hands were free. About 5 minutes into the process I added 1 large clove of minced garlic. I’m sure many folks would say to add the garlic at the beginning, but I really dislike the bitter taste of burned garlic so rather than chance it, I held off.

Once the crumbs were nice and toasty brown, I prepared my bowl with pasta, sprinkled on about 2 tablespoons of the crumbs and added a gratuitous drizzle of olive oil over all. Heaven. And no cheese was even necessary!

What I hadn’t bargained for was the versatility of the leftover breadcrumbs. I put them in an air-tight container and kept them in the refrigerator and was surprised at how often I was called to sprinkle them on this or stir them into that. Wonderful on broccoli, cauliflower and as an added texture to a pan-fried and lightly-sauced pork dish, they were also perfect on top of potato-leek soup in lieu of my usual croutons. They turned leftover steamed veggies into a nice lunch and boosted predictable scrambled eggs to something special. They would also be divine as a topping for homemade macaroni and cheese or any other casserole that would benefit from a garlicky crunch.

I’ll be keeping better track of those bread heels from now on, making sure that they are saved for breadcrumb production instead of heading right out to those chickens. And if I get overrun with staling bread, I can always pop them into the freezer in a plastic bag until I have a minute to make up another batch. Now that I seem to need them on hand at all time, I wonder if they should be considered a condiment? Perhaps, but I do know that I’d rather stay lost than leaving them as a trail in the forest like Hansel and Gretel did. That was a silly idea in the first place, but with these bread crumbs, the silliness would turn to irreverence and I’m not sure if my tomato-less pasta, vegetables, eggs and leftovers would ever forgive me.


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