The California Cook: Mighty, mighty bread crumbs
Toast fresh bread shavings and toss with pasta or vegetables to transform the dish.
Spaghetti with arugula and garlic bread crumbs (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Everyone knows about using bread crumbs for coating a schnitzel or any other fried, baked or broiled thing. Or stuffing a bird or whole fish. Or scattering across the top of a gratin or tian before browning. I've even used them as toppings for fruit desserts, like a less-sweet version of a crisp.
But what I'd never really realized was the true potential of bread crumbs, how instead of being bland character actors toiling in the background, they can actually become the stars of a dish, or at least a very impressive second lead.
Top steamed or braised vegetables with some carefully toasted bread crumbs and the dish is transformed by the infusion of crunch and that golden brown flavor.
Scatter them in a salad and they work like micro-croutons (I'm almost positive I actually was served these once; just imagine some poor kitchen slave having to painstakingly shave a close-crumbed pain-de-mie into perfect micron-sized cubes).
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One of my favorite recent bread crumb dishes was also the simplest: Toast bread crumbs, boil spaghetti, chop arugula. Mix well. Utterly delicious.
Ironically, it was probably a character actor who first got me thinking about a starring role for bread crumbs in the first place — and I have to admit I wasn't that impressed. My much-missed friend, the late Vincent Schiavelli, was a big advocate for them (if you don't remember the name, you remember the face from "Taxi," "Ghost" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," among many others.)
Schiavelli was very proud of his Sicilian heritage. His grandfather, Andrea, had been one of the last of the monzus — the French-trained chefs for the Sicilian aristocracy — and Vincent was a great cook as well.
And he was a liberal user of bread crumbs, muddica in Sicilian dialect. "It's because we're greedy," he would laugh. "We want to feel like we get a mouthful with every bite."
But to tell you the truth, as good a cook as Schiavelli was, I was never a big fan of the way he used bread crumbs. He chose dry rather than fresh, and they were ground very fine. Even after toasting, the texture was somewhat sandy (and, yes, mouth-filling) rather than crunchy and light.
The next two steps on my journey toward bread crumb understanding came very close together, which is probably why they made such an impression.
First came a couple of meals testing and perfecting Judy Rodgers' bread crumb-fried eggs from "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" for a previous column. Even though I'd prepared this dish dozens of times before, I couldn't get over how the crunch transformed a familiar dish. And when I served it over steamed asparagus, wheels started turning.
That same week I had dinner at Steve Samson and Zach Pollack's new restaurant, Sotto, where they used toasted bread crumbs to garnish a salad of grilled romaine.
That's when the bells finally rang. Why couldn't I use these crunchy toasted fresh bread crumbs the same way Vincent had used the dried?
"I'm going to steal this," I remember saying to one of my companions.
My first experiment was with steamed asparagus. I'd gotten nice thick stalks and steamed them to that exquisite mousse-like texture and dressed them with olive oil and lemon. So far, same as usual. But this time I toasted some fresh bread crumbs in olive oil and scattered them over the top.
Just that simple addition — just that little bit of crunch to contrast with the tender spears — made what is always one of my favorite dishes even better. I then went on a spree, tossing bread crumbs onto almost everything but my morning oatmeal (though, come to think of it …).
Bread crumbs are so easy to make. The most important thing is starting with fresh bread. Neither dried crumbs nor panko worked as well in these kinds of dishes — the dried crumbs were just as I remembered Vincent's, and the panko had a stale taste.