Bread crumbs are the new kale. Well, maybe not — but they are pretty terrific. Toasted with garlic and olive oil, they can lend a textural and flavorful crunch to a variety of foods. You’d never know that something as simple and ubiquitous as a handful of crumbs could be what you’re looking for to amp your everyday recipes.
Homemade crumbs are the exact opposite of the kind you find in the supermarket. They are coarse instead of fine. They have flavor, but not too much. They’re meant for much more than holding together meatballs or dredging meat cutlets before frying. Think of them as gilding, a flick of golden crumbs that add texture and a subtle punch to tender foods.
When I had my pizza, pasta and panini restaurant, Angeli Caffe, on Melrose Avenue here in Los Angeles, there was always a lot of bread lying around. The staff would use it to encase everything, even fried potato croquettes. And, of course, we used it to make Caesar salad croutons. But we didn’t really tap the potential of that simple handful of crumbs until we started grinding the bread in the food processor.
We didn’t wait until the bread was stale, but ground it before the loaves got too hard. Then we could choose whether to use the crumbs fresh to bind croquettes or meatballs or atop a gratin or to take them one step further and create a lightly garlicky mix of uneven crunch. Angeli chef Kathy Ternay started massaging olive oil into the fresh crumbs and baking them. Eventually, a little minced garlic found its way into the mix, along with some salt and pepper.
We started to build up pounds of the stuff and eventually incorporated it into our daily culinary practice. Imagine substituting the canned dust of purchased bread crumbs with these — coarser, crunchy, garlicky bread crumbs that are really like a handful of small, uneven croutons. I don’t even call them bread crumbs — I call them gravel.
We got a little crazy and threw handfuls of the stuff on everything: spaghetti aglio e olio (their highest use, in my opinion), shrimp sauteed in butter and garlic, and wilted greens tossed with goat cheese. Green beans are fantastic when dry sautéed and then tossed with bread crumbs. Even ricotta gnocchi or a simple salad got the rain of crunch from time to time. A handful helps bind whatever condiments you’re using to the main ingredient of a dish.
Bread crumbs also work well as a liaison between sweet and savory — fruit and cheese, for example. Try tossing a tablespoon or so on that plate of seasonal fruit with burrata. The crumbs add a salty lift to the fruit — you might want to leave out the garlic on this batch — and absorb the milky goodness of the dairy. I use the crumbs, again sans garlic, in galettes. If you layer the bread crumbs over the dough and underneath the fruit, they absorb excess juice and prevent the dreaded soggy bottom. And, of course, I use them on top of savory pies that have a creamy element, just as I would a casserole, like a savory crumble topping. I love boule crumbs in croquettes. In fact, I sometimes make dumplings using the bread crumbs as the main ingredient. Italian passatelli, anyone? (A pasta actually made from bread crumbs, plus egg and Parmesan.)
As for what kind of bread to use, it doesn’t really matter — although as with most things, the better the bread, the better the outcome. Consider the characteristics of the crumb of different styles of bread. Fresh crumbs from challah will be richer, more delicate and lighter than those from a sturdy boule. (You’ll find different uses for each.) And though I’m using the word crumb, when you grind these, don’t forget the crust, which adds character and heft to the result.
Speaking of leftover bread, you’re going to be hearing a lot about using up the stuff in the next few months, due to the recent release of famed Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s book “Bread Is Gold.” In the book, Bottura — whose restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is considered one of the best in the world — describes a dish his grandmother made of bread crumbs soaked in warm milk with sugar. The title recipe of the book is his ode to her. (He also adds bread crumbs to a fantastic pesto.)
Bottura has received a lot of attention for his Food for Soul restaurant project, which feeds the hungry in a dignified fashion with food that previously would have gone to waste. “Bread Is Gold” is a documentation of recipes created by chefs invited to collaborate with Bottura at various Food for the Soul locations around the world. Sweet and savory puddings, bread soups and dumplings made of bread or bread crumbs are just some of the dishes that show up daily on tables all over Italy — and in the book. The chef is well-suited to the task, coming as he does from one of the most frugal culinary traditions in the world. Italians famously use everything, and when it comes to leftover bread, they’re geniuses.
Let’s go back to the idea of textural adornment for simply prepared vegetables — like a recipe for cauliflower steaks alla puttanesca. The idea of using bread crumbs as a vehicle for extreme flavor atop a big slice of cauliflower came to me from Joshua McFadden’s cookbook “Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables,” which includes a recipe for cauliflower steak topped with a piquant mixture of bread crumbs, pickled peppers and cheese. I made it McFadden’s way first, then embraced the Italian aspect of the dish and added capers, olives, anchovies and Parmesan. The dish becomes a crunchy cloud of flavor sitting atop the tender slabs of roasted cauliflower, which have been garnished with tomato sauce — and more Parmesan — halfway through cooking. You could experiment too.
Bread crumbs haven’t had so much creative opportunity since, well, Hansel and Gretel used them to find their way home.
Kleiman ran Angeli Caffe for 27 years. She's the longtime host of KCRW-FM's "Good Food" and a member of the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.