Every morning, I light the burners, trim the vegetables, and lumber toward some ineffable sense of progress. Hours later, I’m scrubbing the counters, scouring the burnt edges of the stove with a steel wool pad, waiting for insight. All I ever seem to get is a trail of breadcrumbs, a tiny string of clues about how to court progress in my cooking.
Earlier this week, when an attempt to make chicken and dumplings in the pressure cooker failed spectacularly, I felt the familiar disquiet of progress slipping through my fingers.
The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know shit. Neither does anyone else. In that sense, maybe not-knowing is a sign of progress.
The Tuscans taught me to love old bread. The myriad ways they invigorate old bread with new life epitomizes the gracefulness of their thrifty, economical cooking. I cheer when I stretch old ingredients into something new. Tiny victories omnipresent in Italian kitchens where war, famine, and scarcity are still fresh wounds, memories that have yet to scab over. Perhaps they never will.
Sicilians make good use of breadcrumbs. They shower them in pasta, use them to bulk out fillings and stuffings and as a coating for all sorts of fried things, arancini principal among them. I once ate a plate of swordfish involtini in Palermo whose stuffing was predominantly made up of breadcrumbs tinged goldenrod from a healthy pinch of saffron, the former being one of the cheapest and the latter one of the most expensive ingredients a cook could reach for. The pauper and the king.
In Rome, we stored the leftover bread in the giant brown paper bag from that morning’s bread delivery. Every few days, one of us sorted through it, picking out the pieces that were sufficiently dry. The rest would go back in the oversized brown bag to continue drying out. On desperate days when I woke up too late to eat breakfast before my shift, I’d slip my hand into the bag on the way to the bathroom and nibble on a heel of old bread. The dry brittleness intensified my hunger and left my mouth saturated with saliva.
Whoever was on breadcrumb duty would trim off the crusts, pulse the pieces in the food processor, toss them liberally with olive oil and salt, and bake them until browned and sufficiently crunchy. Everyone snacked on them throughout the shift, which is why you always made double what you needed. They were almost as addictive as the salt-brined almonds we made for the bar, which I ate by the handful, despite the fact that a 250-gram bag cost 9 euro.
Italians call breadcrumbs mollica di pane. Mollica, crumbs, are just that, suitable for sprinkling over a bowl of beans or folded into pasta. Crostini di pane are larger, more like a crouton, suitable for salads like panzanella. If you start with crostini di pane and they’re too big, pulse in a food processor until you get the size you’re after.
Croutons are one of the most popular ways to repurpose old bread. I once watched a video of Allison Roman demo-ing how to make croutons. Instead of using a knife to cut even cubes, she admonished me to tear the bread by hand. The uneven chunks have more surface area to capture a healthy shower of salt and olive oil, she explained. “And they’re so much sexier.”
Texture is an important consideration in cooking. The breadcrumbs in bucatini con le sarde provide an essential crunch to contrast the softened, sweet raisins and the briny, disintegrated bits of melted onions and sardine flesh. Lest we forget that, in Sicily, we are always by the sea.
Breadcrumbs, along with toasted nuts and seeds, are my favorite way to break up the monotony of a pureed soup or the homogeneity of a ladle of stewed vegetables. They’re at home sprinkled over a bowl of stewed beans, folded into salsa verde, or showered over a bed of roasted vegetables.
They can become addictive, and I often worry I reach for them out of habit, the way one reaches for their favorite pair of sweats all too often. Their salty crunch can enliven pretty much anything, much like aioli, which I’d be content to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a healthy sprinkle of breadcrumbs on top.
- Bread that’s 2-3 days old, crusts removed, cut into small-ish chunks
- Couple tablespoons of olive oil
- Couple pinches of kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Start with bread that’s a couple days old. You want the bread to be mostly dry with a hint of pliability. It won’t work if it’s rock hard (watch this video from Sara Moulton if you want to revive a rock-hard baguette for dinner tonight).
Trim off the crusts and compost. Cut the trimmed bread into chunks and pulse in the food processor until most of the pieces are roughly the size of peas.
Transfer to a mixing bowl. Season with salt and olive oil. Spread in an even layer on a parchment-lined sheet tray. Bake for about 10 minutes, until evenly browned and crunchy. After 5-7 minutes, stir the breadcrumbs and turn the sheet tray around in the oven.
The breadcrumbs will keep in a well-sealed container for about a week.