My son's loaves of the sourdough bread he mastered during the pandemic were a blessing — until we ran out of freezer space.
To use up those drying heels, I turned to Lynne Rossetto Kasper, whose stories of thrifty innovative Sicilian cooks include "Poor Man's Parmesan," the century-old technique of pan-toasting breadcrumbs in olive oil. While there's really no substitute for the real thing, this version yields rich nuggets that add crunch and savor to casseroles, soups, salads and pasta.
Poor Man's Parmesan costs nothing and will last for weeks in an airtight container in the cupboard. If it loses its oomph, simply re-toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan over low heat. The Italian version calls for white country bread, but it's wonderful made with whole-wheat bread for a nutty flavor or with rye for its tangy taste.
It's also the key ingredient in this simple Sicilian pasta of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and pinch of red pepper flakes. Toss in a spoonful of capers or chopped olives for substance or add a few chopped anchovies for umami richness. It's most often made with spaghetti, but any pasta will work well. After cooking the spaghetti, be sure to retain some of the salted pasta water before draining it off. Enriched with the pasta's starch it will turn the sautéed garlic and lemon or wine into a light, luscious sauce. Tangle this pasta with seasonal vegetables as they come into market: asparagus, peas, green beans, tiny cherry tomatoes, broccoli — you get the idea. Try adding cooked chicken or ham or real Parmesan for a heartier meal.
Serve this dish with a tossed green salad dressed in a sharp vinaigrette and, of course, more freshly baked bread.
Sicilian Pasta With Parmesan, Capers and Toasted Breadcrumbs
Note: You can double the quantity of toasted breadcrumbs to store in a covered container in the pantry. These will stay fresh for at least a few weeks. If you need to re-crisp, simply toss them back into a dry pan and toast over low heat. Allow them to cool before packing them up. This recipe finishes the dish with shreds of real Parmesan cheese, but it's just as delicious without. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/2 loaf of sourdough bread, coarsely ground into crumbs (about 2 to 2 1/2 c.)
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, smashed
• 16 oz. spaghetti
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 3 cloves garlic, smashed
• Generous pinch red pepper flakes
• 1 tbsp. drained capers, or more to taste
• 1 tbsp. fresh lemon zest
• Juice of 1 large lemon (about 3 tbsp.)
• 1/2 c. pasta cooking water
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 to 2 tbsp. shaved Parmesan, optional
To prepare the breadcrumbs: Break dry bread into chunks. (If your bread is still moist, dry out slices in a warm oven until firm, but not super hard, and then break into chunks.) Place bread chunks in a food processor and whir into crumbs.
In a medium skillet, heat the oil and garlic together over medium-low heat until the garlic begins to turn golden. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the breadcrumbs to the oil and fry the breadcrumbs, stirring and tossing frequently until they turn golden brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel and allow them to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.
To prepare the pasta: Bring about 5 to 6 quarts of generously salted water to a rapid boil. Drop in the pasta and cook until tender but firm, about 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water before draining the pasta. Return the drained pasta to the pot and cover it to retain heat.
Film a large skillet with the oil, add the garlic, and set over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic until just tender, about 1 to 2 minutes, then add the pepper flakes, capers, lemon zest, lemon juice and pasta cooking water. Turn the cooked pasta into the skillet and toss everything together and warm over low heat to reduce the liquid until it's a glaze. Season with salt and pepper to taste, toss in the toasted breadcrumbs along with the Parmesan, if using, and serve immediately
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.