2.16.16 Crumb It Up
If necessity is the mother of invention, then hunger must be its father. Rooting around in the kitchen with dinner on your mind, you might come across a crust of bread or a handful of rice and, suddenly, inspiration strikes. So it must have been long ago in Sicily, on a day when cheese was scarce, that some creative cook decided to fry breadcrumbs in good olive oil and toss them onto hot pasta. Eureka! While I can't deny the richly savory merits of Parmesan, I'm equally enthralled by the oily, garlicky crunch of this humble garnish. Scatter it with abandon atop any number of dishes and you, too, will know its many pleasures.
If you usually discard the stale leftovers from your country-style loaves, try making breadcrumbs instead. It's best to cut up any large pieces into more manageable one- or two-inch chunks. Left out on a plate or baking sheet, they will harden up and be ready for crumbling (crumbing?) after a day or two—and I've even used pieces that were left in a paper bag on a shelf for a week or more.
Once the bread is thoroughly dry, seal it into a large ziploc bag and then seal that in another bag. Bundle this in a kitchen towel (yes, Charvet linen is still my favorite) and bash it all over with a rolling pin or meat mallet. Peek in occasionally to gauge your progress.
What you're striving for is a mix of small and medium crumbs—too fine and they become gritty, too large and they're too much of a mouthful. Once that's done, you heat butter and olive oil in a skillet, then add some fresh herbs, garlic and chile flakes. Any seasoning you like will do. After a minute or so, the fat becomes infused with flavor and you stir in the breadcrumbs. Another few minutes and they turn a wonderful golden brown. Transfer them to a paper-towel-lined plate and let them cool.
Your wonderfully flavorful seasoned breadcrumbs will keep, stored in an airtight container at room temperature, for several days. But they generally don't last that long because they're truly divine on pretty much everything: pasta with anchovies and Calabrian chiles; escarole salad with a grating of bottarga; white bean soup; creamed kale; and even yogurt with a swirl of chutney. Drop a trail of these breadcrumbs and the world will beat a path to your table.
- — 1 cup country bread, cut into 1" cubes
- — 3 tablespoons olive oil
- — 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- — 6 sprigs herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram or a mix
- — 3 large cloves garlic, crushed
- — Generous pinch red chile flakes
- — Sea salt
Spread bread pieces on a large plate or baking sheet and keep at room temperature until dried out, 1–2 days.
Place the bread in a large ziploc bag and seal; then place inside another bag and seal again. Wrap in a dish towel and use a rolling pin to smash the bread into crumbs. You're going for a mix of sizes, neither too fine nor too chunky.
Heat the oil and butter in a heavy skillet over medium until the butter starts to foam. Add the herbs, garlic and chile flakes, stirring for a minute or so. Toss in 1 cup of breadcrumbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to paper towels and drain. Pluck out and discard herbs and garlic, season with salt and cool.
Breadcrumbs can be dried out and crushed 1 month ahead. Store in the freezer in an airtight container.