“Un ingrediente sacro” – A sacred ingredient
Breadcrumbs! So what I hear you thinking? Those nifty, fluffy little things that are reached for in every good cook’s kitchen more times than Van Gogh reached for an ochre tinged paintbrush. What about them? Poor breadcrumbs, they’re never really the star of the show. However, they are called upon time and time again by budding chefs and novice cooks to aid in the creation of fancy concoctions and delicious homemade dishes. You see, breadcrumbs are introverts. They won’t scream at you “Hey, look at me!” like those other showy extrovert ingredients. They won’t demand attention like the courgette flower, with her flashy golden frill and slender deep green stem. No, not breadcrumbs. They’re like your best friend; dependable, reliable and always happy to jump in and get the job done.
I cannot think of a single ingredient more commonly reached for by Sicilian Nonnas than the humble crumb. Made from whatever day old bread was left untouched from the previous day’s family feasting, it is grated, yep, by hand, and stored with as little effort as you or I might order a double shot flat white. Used with delicious effect to whip up tried and true recipes handed down through the generations, with little or no tweaking along the way. And that’s the beautiful thing about Sicilian cooking, like the breadcrumb, it’s dependable and always executed simply and without fuss.
Now, the modest crumb may seem like an insignificant ingredient to write a Journal post about, however, to Sicilians, Mollica as they are called in Italian, are as sacred in the kitchen as a mango is to an Australian on a hot and humid summer’s day. In fact, so sacred are they that Sicilians even have their own proverb on the topic. To drop even a single crumb on the floor will see you destined, for all eternity, to pick up crumbs with your eyelashes. A hefty punishment when you consider how slippery those sneaky crumbs can be; often found hours later hiding under chopping boards and stuck to the side of kitchen drawers. You’ve been warned.
Today’s dish allows the breadcrumb to shine in all it’s crunchy golden glory. This recipe of melted salty anchovies and velvety pecorino sauce wouldn’t be nearly as delicious without the addition of those garlicky lemon infused breadcrumbs. And that’s a fact. This is one of those simple Sicilian meals that relies on good quality ingredients, allowing their quality and flavour to shine. And once you’ve mastered the simple act of making your own breadcrumbs, you’ll be scattering the tops of pasta dishes forevermore. Just be sure not to drop any on the floor!
- 4-6 garlic gloves, divided
- 130g sourdough or other crusty bread, cut into 2cm chunks (approx. 2 cups)
- 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
- Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup excellent quality olive oil (plus 3 more separate tablespoons)
- 3-4 oil packed anchovy fillets (depending on desired saltiness)
- ½ tsp dried red chilli flakes
- 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 350g dried (fresh if preferred, however, alter cooking time accordingly) bucatini, spaghetti, or linguine
- 55g finely grated good quality pecorino romano
- ½ cup finely chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
For this recipe, and most of the others I use, I combined different methods from various sources such as internet browsing, treasured cookbooks and eating my way around the Mediterranean island of Sicily. On this occasion, one recipe that I referred to again and again was from Epicurious. As usual, and I encourage you to do the same, I have adapted the ingredients ever so slightly to suit my tastes and availability of produce. Don’t tell Ciro, my Sicilian born and bred tour co-host, that I processed the breadcrumbs in my blender instead of grating them by hand, like his mamma used to do.
Thinly slice half of the divided garlic cloves with a sharp knife or a mandolin and set aside. I used 6 garlic cloves in total (the original recipe called for 8) and although delicious, I still found the result to be a little too garlicky for my taste. Next time I’ll use four in total. But hey, if you love garlic, go nuts!
Pulse remaining garlic cloves in a blender, or food processor, until finely chopped. Gradually add bread and lemon zest until coarse crumbs form. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat ¼ cup olive oil in large, deep frypan or heavy bottom pot over medium heat. Cook breadcrumb mixture, stirring often, until golden and crispy, or as Giorgio Locatelli said in his book Made in Sicily, until they become “il colore di una tonaca di Monaco”, the colour of a monk’s tunic. For those not familiar with that particular shade of monk brown, about five minutes. Using a large spoon, transfer crumb mixture to a small bowl.
Using the same pot, heat remaining 3 tbsp olive oil over medium to low. Cook reserved sliced garlic, stirring often, until slightly golden at edges, about 1 minute. Add chilli flakes (be careful, adding dried chillies to hot oil can cause the oil to spit a little) and anchovies and stir continuously for about a minute until anchovies have dissolved. Stir through lemon juice.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large deep pot with plenty of water, salted. Stir occasionally until pasta is very al dente, about 3 minutes less than the package states.
Using tongs, gently transfer the pasta to the sauce pot with approximately 1 cup of pasta water. Cook, tossing often, until pasta is al dente. Add a few tbsp of pasta cooking water, then add pecorino, tossing until emulsified. Remove from the heat, add the butter, parsley, and half of breadcrumb mixture and stir until combined. If the pasta seems dry, add a little more pasta water. Season to taste.
Now pour yourself a lovely, cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc (the crispness cuts through the richness of the anchovies perfectly) and divide the pasta among four bowls. Drizzle with a little extra lemon juice, if desired, and scatter with remaining breadcrumbs. Buon appetito!