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The Biggest Crumbs

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Whether you are a bread baker or a fan of the high-quality bread shops that are popping up everywhere, you must either have a freezer full of leftover ends of bread or you end up throwing out those small pieces when they become hard as a rock in the bread drawer. Typically made without preservatives, these breads stale quickly.

Croutons are the perfect answer for those leftover loaves. Baked or sauteed, plain or seasoned, these crisp bread cubes can make a simple dish much more substantive. They are easy to make and, stored in an airtight container, will last for several days at room temperature or up to three months in the freezer.

Beyond soups and salads, croutons are also excellent for stuffings, casseroles, pastas, even snacks when they are well-seasoned.

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GARLIC CROUTONS

These croutons also can be baked dry without seasoning which makes them useable in desserts like brown Betty and bread puddings. Also, these plain croutons can be ground up in a food processor and made into toasted dry crumbs. Add dried herbs, spices or grated Parmesan cheese to the garlic croutons--they make very tasty cocktail snacks.

1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil

1 large garlic clove, minced

6 cups (1/2-inch square) day-old bread cubes, crust removed

Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat oil and garlic in small saucepan over medium heat until garlic is fragrant, about 3 minutes. Strain oil through fine sieve, pressing on garlic to release all oil. Discard garlic.

Spread bread cubes in 1 layer in jelly roll pan. Toss well with garlic oil. Sprinkle with salt. Toss again until salt is well distributed.

Bake at 375 degrees until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Stored airtight, croutons can be kept 3 days at room temperature or frozen for as long as 3 months.

Makes 6 cups croutons.

Each 1/4-cup serving contains about:

52 calories; 88 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 0 grams protein; 0.04 gram fiber.

CRUNCHY BREAD SALAD WITH TOMATO, MOZZARELLA, OLIVES AND BASIL

Here, garlic croutons provide the substance and crunch in the salad. I like this salad best when it is mostly mixed ahead (add the croutons at serving time) and the flavors have a chance to develop. The last-minute addition of the croutons is delicious. For a light summer supper, serve the salad with cold chicken or shrimp and a mixed green salad.

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3 medium tomatoes, seeded, cut in 1/2-inch dice

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/2-inch dice

10 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup thin-sliced basil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 cups Garlic Croutons

Fresh basil sprigs

Combine tomatoes, mozzarella, olives, vinegar, basil, salt and pepper to taste in large mixing bowl. Gently toss to mix well. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 3 hours in refrigerator for flavors to develop.

To serve, toss in Garlic Croutons, adjust seasonings to taste and garnish with fresh basil sprigs. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

304 calories; 656 mg sodium; 45 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 0.88 gram fiber.

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