Poor Man’s Parmesan


I eat pasta more than any normal person should.  I have to limit myself to one time per week as a main course, though I do make exceptions that allow for a second Asian-style noodle dish, either made at home or out at a restaurant.  It’s just about the perfect food – except for the fact that it’s not crunchy.

While flavor is most important, of course, texture runs a reasonably close second when it comes to the eating experience for me.  And – hooo doggie – when I can get something that’s delicious and gives a nice crunch, I’m pretty much in heaven.  Hence my addiction to pretty much anything deep-fried.

So then why can’t pasta be crunchy, too?  Sure you could just undercook it, but that’s not what we’re going for here.  We need something that is going to elevate the dish.  We need something that will remind us about the best part of the one crunchy noodle dish already out there, mac & cheese.

We need breadcrumbs.

Not just any breadcrumbs, mind you.  Breadcrumbs pan-fried in olive oil, with some sliced garlic thrown in for added flavor.

Now, I’ll be upfront and say that this is no modern invention.  Breadcrumbs have been used as a pasta-topper for quite a while, sometimes known as a “poor man’s” alternative to topping your dish with grated cheese.  But we all know that just because something is an inexpensive option doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.

So, what does this simple topping require?  Chances are, you probably already have everything you need…

Pan-Toasted Garlic Breadcrumbs

Three cloves of garlic, sliced

One quarter cup, olive oil (plus more as needed)

Six-to-eight inch chunk of day-old Italian bread

Crushed red pepper, to taste (optional)

Actually, feel free to use some multi-day-old bread, since the drier, the better.  If you have a food processor, cut or tear the bread into large chunks and pulse until you get panko-sized breadcrumbs.  If you don’t have one, you’re going to need to put some elbow grease in and use the large holes on your box grater.  Watch your knuckles.  Either way, you’re aiming for about two cups.

As you’re cooking the pasta, heat the oil on medium in a pan and scatter the garlic and red pepper. Cook the garlic until it just starts to turn golden, then add the breadcrumbs quickly and uniformly around the pan so it absorbs the oil.  Depending on how dry the breadcrumbs are, you may need to add some more olive oil.  Stir constantly until you get it nice, crispy and golden brown to your liking. Then move the breadcrumbs to a bowl…leaving them in the pan until you’re ready to use them WILL result in burnt breadcrumbs.

Easy, right?  Yep, but the trick is picking a pasta dish to use this on.  You can’t go with a saucy dish or this is going to turn into cakey mush. Try pasta tossed with broccoli or cauliflower (add them to the cooking pasta with a few minutes left on the noodles) and dressed in olive oil and you’ll be golden. Add the majority of the crumbs while you’re tossing the pasta, but reserve some as a final topping as you’re plating for an extra-crispy finish.

(Photo: thebittenword.com)

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  • BS July 21, 2010  

    yum – love it. I always feel guilty for wanting to add carb to my carbs, but you’re right – sometimes pasta needs a crunch!

  • Nick (Macheesmo) July 21, 2010  

    Carbs on carbs! Love it.

  • Don July 21, 2010  

    Very nice! I have occasionally made pasta with either broccoli or cauliflower that has been sautéed in o.o., garlic and pepper flakes but have been looking for a twist that would add more texture or taste. Voilà! I now have an idea thanks to your post. I may even tinker a bit by adding a modicum of grated cheese to the breadcrumbs once in a while for an added layer of taste.

    The pasta/breadcrumbs idea reminds me of when I was a kid. My Mother made a side dish that was ungodly simple and stretched the budget. She’d make the thin, short egg noodles (angel hair thin) and add some butter. The noodles were placed in a heated skillet and breadcrumbs mixed in. It had just the right amount of crunch and “yum factor”. In later years I found that many who also grew up in the ’50s and ’60s enjoyed this dish – must have been the popular side dish of its time.

  • erica July 23, 2010  

    not so poor but also awesome: walnuts ground with some nutritional yeast and a pinch of salt. yummmmmm.

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