Conflicted Kitchen

Feeling Crumby

Homemade breadcrumbs make everything better--and sometimes healthier, too

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Anyone who is even remotely concerned about healthy eating or weight control has considered the carbohydrate. It’s clear to me from my own eating and weight patterns that starchy, floury foods contribute to weight gain, if only because they tend to make it all too easy to overeat. Unfortunately, they also contribute immeasurably to the pleasure in many a meal.

There’s the extreme approach of cutting them entirely. We all know at least one person who lives on romaine heart spears and hard-boiled eggs. I’ve tried this for hours at a stretch only to have my resolve broken by the aroma of just-baked pizza or the sad prospect of a burger minus the bun.

I prefer a middle path where bread is eaten mindfully and moderately. One way to get more enjoyment out of less bread is to make your own homemade breadcrumbs from leftover loaves. It’s their satisfying crunch that makes them so transformative to a dish—texture contrasts go a long way toward making you feel sated by what you eat.

Whenever I get a nice, fresh baguette or boule I slice a reasonable portion to serve soft and fresh with soup or cheese or softened cultured butter. The rest of the loaf—usually about three-quarters of it—is sliced and stored in a zip-top bag in the freezer for the future. Simply thawed, the bread won’t taste as good as it did fresh, but toasting or grilling gives the slices new life as the base for open faced sandwiches, garlic bread and casual hors d’oeuvres. Serve some formerly frozen baguette slices slightly charred, rubbed with garlic and smeared with goat cheese. Your friends will identify you as the Martha Stewart of your circle.

After a month, if I still have any bread left, I dice it into cubes for making my own crumbs. (If the bread’s flavor left something to be desired in the first place, I will cut it into cubes right away. Great breadcrumbs can mean redemption for lackluster loaves.) Craggy and textured in a way the dust-like supermarket kind simply are not, homemade crumbs seem to improve everything they touch.

As an alternative to the mostly-bread sandwich, I suggest packing an ample portion of simply roasted vegetables with a portion of soft cheese, such as goat or ricotta, and topping those wholesome ingredients with a mere two tablespoons of crunchy, buttery crumbs. Such a meal has around the same amount of calories as most Lean Cuisines, but it’s much more fun to eat and healthier, too. And while it is hardly a carb-free meal, it’s considerably less starchy than your typical midday sandwich or wrap.

In the morning, breadcrumbs make a good substitute for toast sprinkled in the hot frying pan as a bed for a fried egg. Crack the egg into the waiting nest of crumbs and let them cook together to become a single, wonderful crunchy-creamy thing. Again, a scant amount does the trick. (Topped with wilted greens or sautéed mushrooms, this makes a good light dinner as well.)

Mix equal parts homemade crumbs with Parmesan cheese and bread thin paillards of chicken breast with the blend. Fried in a little olive oil, these cutlets taste much more indulgent than they actually are served over a virtuous mound of spicy arugula dressed lightly with lemon juice and olive oil.

Not that you always need to deploy your new secret ingredient in lighter, healthier way. It may strike you as redundant, but in Italy toasted or fried breadcrumbs are often used in pasta dishes to add texture and interest to basic preparations. Simply mash an anchovy into some hot olive oil with minced garlic and chili flakes, toss with hot pasta and a splash of its cooking liquid, and top with a few spoonfuls of homemade breadcrumbs to see what I mean.

Mixed with brown sugar and chopped pecans or walnuts, the breadcrumbs can become the base of a streusel-like topping for baked apples. I’ve even been known to press a layer of breadcrumbs right onto banana slices for a treat vaguely reminiscent of pie. If you also make and use your own breadcrumbs, please share your suggestions for ways to use them in the comments below.

Homemade Bread Crumbs

Ingredients:

  • 4 1/2 cups bread cubes (about 6 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 and adjust an oven rack to the middle position.

In a food processor, pulse the bread cubes until they have broken down into course crumbs. Add the butter and run the processor until you have fine breadcrumbs of a mostly uniform size, about one more minute.

Spread evenly over a rimmed baking sheet, transfer to oven and bake until golden brown, about 8 to 12 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.

If more finely ground, perfectly uniform, supermarket-like crumbs are desired, return them to the food processor and pulse until you’re satisfied. Crumbs keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for one month—transfer them to the freezer for long-term storage.

Makes approximately 2 cups

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