The problem with breadcrumbs, is that they are breadcrumbs. They like to gather in the rubber seal at the top of the fridge door, and in between the tiles, meaning I crunch as I move around the kitchen. Most days I make some sort of attempt at sweeping them up, but it always feels as if I am simply shunting them around our small, awkward kitchen in much the same way you do coins in a shove penny machine: hopelessly. ‘Mum ants are taking our bread‘ Luca said as we pressed our chins to the crummy, sticky floor (the problem with squeezing orange juice is orange juice) in search of a lost car the other day. He was right, under the sink a trail of ants were carrying crumbs towards a hole in the wall. ‘Hungry ants‘ said Luca. Helpful ants I thought.
Our crummy kitchen isn’t just the result of everyday bread cutting and eating – although that plays a part, we are a messy lot. It is a result of cooking more and more with breadcrumbs, which means we are getting better and better at reducing old bread into various sorts of crumbs, in various ways, ready for whatever.
This isn’t an entirely new thing, while I can be wasteful, I have alway been good at using up old bread. In England this mostly meant toast and more toast, then if I got my act together bread and butter pudding or crumbs for bread sauce (I adore bread sauce). Living in Rome with a Sicilian has meant that I have discovered so many ways with breadcrumbs that they have become a way of life in the kitchen.
We make two sorts of crumbs. Softish ones from the inside of the bread, la mollica, which are ideal for adding to meatballs, or the various vegetable dumplings I chuck together on a weekly basis (the principle is always the same: boil a vegetable until soft, mash it, add crumbs and grated cheese, possibly herbs, an egg and mould into balls.) We also use the softer crumbs as a crust or sicilian-ish stuffing for fish, meat or vegetables and in various pesto-like sauces. Any soft crumbs I am not going to use straight away I put in small plastic bags that then get lost at the back of the freezer along with the end of a bag of ancient peas and single serving of tomato sauce. Having pulled out the soft crumbs, I then bake the crusts in the oven until crisp so I can smash/rolling-pin them into a fine breadcrumbs, or pan grattato – which is of course nothing like as fine as shop bought stuff, but that is fine by me. I use these fine-ish crumbs to dust meat or vegetable balls that are going to be fried, and to coat meat or fish that is going to be shallow-fried or baked. I keep dry pan grattato in a jar, bringing it back to life and crunch with a little jig around a hot pan.
If Vincenzo, a Sicilian, whose widowed grandmother Lilla ran a bakery (an extraordinary thing in profoundly traditional, rural Sicily in the 50’s and 60’s) had it his way, there would always be a bowl of toasted breadcrumbs on the table for sprinkling on wherever: pasta, veg, salad. I first I thought it a very odd habit, especially the crumbs on pasta, which felt somehow double. Then some crumbs that had been tossed around a hot pan in olive oil until golden and crisp were sprinkled on my pasta with greens and anchovies, others on my spaghetti with oil, garlic and chilli: I was won over. Then I discovered breadcrumbs and anchovies. Which brings us to today’s recipe, one of my absolute favourites, pasta with anchovy breadcrumbs.
Anchovy breadcrumbs are – I think – inspired. Breadcrumbs (soft or hard ones depending on your preference) are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now you know how we are often reassured the fishiness of anchovies will slide away like an obedient manservant leaving just the wonderful seasoning: this is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, it’s fishy, saltiness making the golden crumbs taste like nubs of Unami that shout I am an anchovy breadcrumb. Rest assured, if you hate anchovies you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies however, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.
This is one of those satisfyingly simple pasta dishes that comes together, with minimal effort, in minimal time. While the pasta rolls and steams the kitchen windows and your face, you warm the oil (I like a little butter too), add the anchovies and then nudge them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the anchovies have disintegrated and the edges of the oil and butter are just starting to foam, you add the crumbs, raise the heat and jig them around the pan until they are crisp and golden. Once the pasta is ready, you drain it, tip it into a bowl, tip over most of the crumbs and parsley if you fancy, toss properly and divide between bowls. You finish each serving with the last few crumbs from the pan, before you enjoy your tangle of spaghetti ensnaring an anchovy rubble – delicious stuff.
Later that day you could well find anchovy crumbs in the seal of your fridge, don’t ask me how.
Spaghetti with anchovy breadcrumbs
Most recipes – if you can call them that – call for soft breadcrumbs. We prefer an uneven rubble made from old crusts, baked until crisp them smashed with a rolling-pin. Drier crumbs need less time in the pan than soft crumbs. As with so many pasta recipes, you want a little residual pasta cooking water clinging to the pasta – not dripping wet – which lends moisture to the dish. This is why tongs are helpful, allowing you to lift the pasta from the pan into the bowl with water clinging to it. Like so many very simple dishes, the key is practice, once you have made this a couple of times you will get the knack.
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- a small knob of butter
- 6 – 8 oil packed anchovies drained or 4 salt packed anchovies, cleaned and de-boned
- big handful breadcrumbs from good bread that is at least a day, ideally two old (appox 50 g /1 cup)
- 300 g spaghetti or linguine
- black pepper
- a handful of finely chopped parsley (optional)
Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil over a full flame. Salt the water, stir, the add the pasta and cook, storing from time to time, until al dente.
Warm the oil and butter in a frying pan or skillet over a medium-low heat. After a minute add the anchovies and nudge them gently around the pan until they disintegrate and dissolve into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs, raise the heat a little and fry until the crumbs have absorbed all the anchovy infused fat and are golden and crisp. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
Drain the pasta and tip into a bowl, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parsley if you are using it, grind over a little black pepper, toss and serve immediately with a glass of cold, white wine with enough acidity to hold its own against the anchovies.