The humble, homemade bread crumb elevates 'poverty cuisine'

Crumbs are for when you got nuttin'.

Centuries of chefs with their backs to the wall have taken a handful of crumbs from day-old bread, toasted them to a golden crunch in olive oil or butter, and used them to transform the minimal -- say, spaghetti noodles or a couple of eggs -- into something memorable indeed.

A supper such as fried eggs in bread crumbs with a dribble of good vinegar may be "the best thing you eat this week," Chef Judy Rodgers of San Francisco's beloved Zuni Cafe once declared.

This favorite recipe of hers urges you get the best eggs you can find and use fresh crumbs from white peasant-style bread.

At the Zuni Cafe, the plate is rounded out with bacon or sausage and a bitter greens salad.

I like to lay these crunchy eggs on a raft of asparagus spears.

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Where simplicity reigns, quality does too. The crumbs must be homemade. Panko need not apply.

The artful Italians have a name for cooking with not much: they call it cucina povera, "poverty cuisine." Many typical dishes reflect southern Italy, where herbs intensify in the sun, anchovies are preserved in salt, and it is not uncommon for people to be baking their own bread and slipping fresh eggs from underneath a household hen.

A stripped-down classic is Lidia Bastianich's Bucatini with Toasted Bread Crumbs from Puglia.

With her fingers she tears higgledy-piggledy-shaped crumbs -- a quarter-inch or bigger, for good crunch. These she sautes in olive oil made fragrant with plenty of sliced garlic and dried, not fresh, oregano until they are bronze and crispy.

A Greek friend got me addicted to super-flavorful dried oregano, the kind packaged on the stem in bunches. Lidia suggests this, too. Find these cellophane-wrapped sheaves at Stamoolis or Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District. Roll the packet between your hands to shake the herb right out of the packet into the skillet or, if measuring is important, onto a piece of foil.

Supper is ready in the time it takes for the pasta water to subdue a pound of bouncy bucatini noodles. (Bucatini, also called perciatelli, are hollow strings, sturdier than spaghetti and easier to wind around a fork.)

Finally, the noodles get a good tumbling with the crumbs and cheese. Penn Mac's cheese maven, Carol Pascuzzi, is on the money suggesting Sicilian medium-aged crotonese, "a sheep's cheese with personality." With tomato salad dressed with red wine vinegar, you have one swell rustic repast.

I made this comfort dish for kids, substituting small thin penne that go on a spoon. "Yum, crumbs!" was the comment from a 7-year-old.

Another "crumb cuisine" standout uses the same tubular bucatini noodles that Lidia's gentle Apulian dish does, but packs adult punch.

Pasta with Spicy Anchovy Sauce and Dill Bread Crumbs is rich and sweet with caramelized onions and tangy dill. A glass of earthy southern Italian wine is just right with the pleasing crunch and nip of dried red pepper in this colorful bowl of noodles.

A workhorse -- with finesse -- for summer grilling is Chef Joanne Weir's "Toasted Bread Crumb Salsa (recipe below)." Fragrant grated lemon rind, fresh herbs, peppery capers (and a hint so faint of anchovy you need not disclose its presence) are stirred with olive oil into crumbs that have been dry-toasted in a skillet to retain their crunch.

The concoction -- more mound-able condiment than sauce -- was spooned on many things while Ms. Weir was at Chez Panisse.

For almost anything grilled or roasted, salmon, halibut, chicken or, surprisingly, chargrilled steak, it's a winner. I couldn't stop eating it on plain steamed broccoli, which stirred thoughts of local cauliflower, carrots, rapini to come.

OK, you've heard it before: Ms. Weir says, "You simply can't use store-bought crumbs."

Things go better with crumbs

What isn't better with crumbs? Crunch and creamy go especially well together. Try a toasty handful on risotto, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, summer chowder.

Risotto: Saute a quarter cup of freshly made crumbs, coarse or fine, in a teaspoon of butter until crisp. Combine with a handful of pine nuts toasted in a dry skillet. Sprinkle on each serving.

Mashed potatoes: A cup or so of crumbs, sauted in a couple of teaspoons butter or olive oil. Equally good on macaroni and cheese or creamy soups.

How to make crumbs

For crumbs with substance and flavor, ciabatta is my choice, but any white peasant bread will do, even baguettes, though they are mostly crust that will be trimmed.

Begin by slicing off the crusts. (Stash these in the freezer. Brushed with olive oil, toasted in the oven and given a generous sprinkle of sea salt, they become delicious shards to float in soup or to use as scoopers.)

Cube or slice the crustless bread. If the bread seems too soft to whirl in the food processor, dry the pieces on a baking sheet in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes or lay them on the counter to dry a few hours. Then whirl to the crumb size you need.

Having some bigger and some smaller bits in the mix adds texture.

Get jiggy with your crumbs

To add a bit of richness to poverty cuisine, consider bacon, prosciutto or pancetta. All work wonderfully. Fry the bacon first and add it to Garlic-Infused Bread Crumbs (recipe below). Strew over:

• Roasted cauliflower

• Roasted or steamed broccoli

• Sauteed rapini or broccolini (blanch either for two minutes first)

• Slow-roasted tomatoes

• Roasted or steamed green beans

• Roasted or steamed brussels sprouts

For a purely veggie version, skip the bacon and sprinkle on the crumbs instead any or all of these: dried red pepper, toasted pignoli nuts, shaved parmesan or flat-leaf parsley.

Lidia's Bucatini with Toasted Bread Crumbs

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Lidia Bastianich says: "This is one of those elemental yet marvelous pastas made from almost nothing but a cook's inventiveness. If you lived in Puglia and all you had in the pantry was oil, garlic, a handful of pasta, a hunk of bread, and a sheaf of dried oregano, this is what you would make for your family. And they would be happy."

  • Chunk of country-style bread (about a 6-inch piece), day-old preferred
  • About 1 1/2 tablespoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt, divided
  • 1 pound bucatini (also called perciatelli)
  • 1/2 cup or more extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons sliced garlic (4 or more plump cloves)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Canestrato Pugliese (substitute aged crotonese, available at Pennsylvania Macaroni)

Recommended equipment

A heavy-bottomed skillet or saute pan, 12 inches or larger

Cut off the crust of bread chunk and with your fingers, tear the interior of the bread into irregular shreds, 1/4-inch or a bit larger -- big enough to crunch nicely when toasted. For a pound of pasta, shred 2 full cups of the rough crumbs.

Heat at least 6 quarts of water, with 1 tablespoon salt, to a rolling boil in the big pot and add the bucatini. Bring it back to the boil and cook, partially covered, until al dente.

As soon as the pasta is in the pot, pour 1/2 cup of olive oil into the big skillet, set over medium-high heat and scatter in the garlic slices. Cook for a couple of minutes until the garlic is sizzling and fragrant but still pale.

Drop in the torn bread crumbs and stir and tumble them over to coat with oil. Keep tossing as they start to toast and color, sprinkle over the oregano, and continue stirring and tossing. Lower the heat to avoid burning and, as soon as the crumbs and garlic slices are deep gold and crisp, turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, keep checking the pasta for doneness. As soon as it is cooked al dente, drain the bucatini, then drop it into the skillet.

Turn the heat up a bit and immediately toss the pasta with the bread crumbs and garlic. Sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon salt and keep tossing. If the crumbs absorbed all the oil and the pasta seems dry, drizzle over 2 or more tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and toss well. Taste and season with more salt if needed. Finally, sprinkle on the parsley and grated cheese, toss and serve right away.

Serves 6.

-- "Lidia's Italy" by Lidia Bastianich (Knopf, 2007)

Zuni Cafe Fried Eggs in Bread Crumbs

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Chef Judy Rodgers says, don't stress flipping them perfectly the first time; do get the freshest eggs you can. Quantities given here are for 1 serving. You'll soon be able to do 4 eggs in a larger pan.

  • 3 tablespoons packed, fresh, soft bread crumbs made from slightly stale, crustless, chewy, white peasant-style bread
  • Salt
  • About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • A few fresh thyme or marjoram leaves or coarsely chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
  • 2 eggs

About 1 teaspoon red wine or balsamic or sherry vinegar

Sprinkle crumbs with salt, then drizzle with enough oil to just oversaturate them. Place crumbs in a 6- to 8-inch French steel omelet pan or nonstick skillet and set over medium heat. (If you like your fried eggs over-easy, reserve some of the oiled raw crumbs to sprinkle on the top of the eggs just before you flip them over.)

Let crumbs warm through, then swirl the pan as they begin drying out, which will make a quiet static-y sound. Stir once or twice.

The moment you see crumbs begin to color, quickly add remaining oil and herbs, if using, then crack egg directly onto crumbs. Cook egg as you like.

Slide onto a warm plate, then add vinegar to hot pan. Swirl the pan once, then pour the drops of sizzling vinegar over the eggs.

Makes 1 serving.

-- "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" by Judy Rodgers (Norton, 2002)

Pasta with Spicy Anchovy Sauce and Dill Bread Crumbs

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For some reason, bucatini noodles, a bit huskier than spaghetti, are a breeze to wind around a fork. With the seductive effects here -- pungent, tangy, spicy with crunch -- you'll be wanting to be winding fast.

  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from a ciabatta or baguette)
  • 1/4 cup chopped dill
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 pound red onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
  • 2-ounce can flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
  • 1 pound bucatini (long tubular strands)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook bread crumbs, stirring constantly, until deep golden and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfwer bread crumbs to a bowl and toss with dill and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.

Wipe out skillet, then cook onions with 1/4 teaspoon salt in remaining 1/2 cup oil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until very soft, 12 to 15 minutes. Add anchovies and cook, mashing anchovies into onions, until dissolved.

Meanwhile, cook bucatini in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 5 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain pasta.

Stir red-pepper flakes and reserved water into anchovy sauce, then add pasta and toss to combine. Add about half of bread crumbs and toss to coat. Serve sprinkled with remaining bread crumbs.

Serves 6.

-- Gourmet Magazine

Toasted Bread Crumb Salsa

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Chef Joanne Weir's "salsa" bursts with lemon zest, capers, fresh herbs and toasty crunch. A spoonful is an exclamation point for summer grilling and veggies: salmon, chicken, steak, pork loin, even steamed or roasted broccoli or cauliflower.

  • 1 cup toasted coarse bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 scallion, white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 2 anchovy filets, soaked in cold water for 2 minutes, patted dry, and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Tear or whirl the crumbs until still fairly coarse. Toast them in a dry skillet, stirring often, until they are deep golden and crunchy.

In a bowl, whisk the vinegar and olive oil together. Add the bread crumbs, parsley, scallion, anchovies, capers, lemon zest, garlic, thyme and rosemary and toss together. Season with salt and pepper.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

-- "Weir Cooking in the City" by Joanne Weir (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

Garlic-Infused Bread Crumbs -- Bacon Optional

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May be done ahead -- combine with bacon just before serving. For a purely veggie version, skip the bacon and sprinkle on instead any or all of these: dried red pepper, toasted pignoli nuts, shaved parmesan or flat-leaf parsley.

  • 1/4 pound bacon, prosciutto or pancetta, roughly chopped (optional)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup freshly made breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons pignoli nuts, toasted in a dry skillet until deep golden (optional)

If you are using bacon, begin by frying 1/4 pound bacon, or a heaping half cup pancetta or prosciutto, roughly chopped, until lightly crisp. Remove meat. Pour off grease. Heat olive oil in same skillet over medium low heat. Add garlic slices. Saute until golden. Do not let garlic scorch. Remove slices with slotted spoons and reserve. Add bread crumbs and saute until deep golden and crisp. Return garlic slices to pan, combine and toss over dish with bacon or pignoli nuts if using.

-- Virginia Phillips

In addition to being a crumb-y cook and food writer, Virginia Phillips is co-leader of Slow Food Pittsburgh and lives in Mt. Lebanon.


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