Spring cleaning is a refreshing and cathartic ritual, and the kitchen is a great place to begin. Clean out the refrigerator, toss any items with long-past use-by dates, and refresh those old spices parked in a drawer. As you fill your trash and recycling bins, keep one exception in mind: Under no circumstances should you throw out any stale bread.
Stale breads are the faded belles of glorious loaves past. In their prime, they are tender and golden, piping hot from the oven and swirling with yeasty steam when broken apart. Dressed with a pat of butter or a drizzle of olive oil, they are luxuriously simple. And while the pleasure of eating freshly baked bread is sublime, it’s also fleeting. Once the loaves are exposed to air, they cool and begin to lose their moisture, drying out and hardening as time passes. After a day or two, the fragrant fresh loaf is often considered a has-been, banished to the corners of the bread tin, the back of the refrigerator or discarded.
Now, before you decide to use that wedge of week-old sourdough as a doorstop, or smash Tuesday’s baguette into bird food, have another think. Stale bread still has a few culinary tricks up its sleeve. Not only are these tricks sensible and frugal; they are smart and delicious. After all, without stale bread, we wouldn’t have bread puddings, croutons, bread stuffings and breadcrumbs. An Italian panzanella salad without stale bread would be a mere tomato salad. A layered breakfast strata without any bread to absorb and elevate the eggs might be mistaken for a frittata. And how would we “au-gratin” the cheese in French onion soup without a sturdy slice of stale bread on which to spread it?
Of course, these might be fine dishes without any bread at all, but what truly defines them is the comfort of stale loaves, gallantly providing crispy vessels and sponges to absorb and float the juices, garnishes and cheeses in dishes we love. So, don’t throw out that old bread just yet. It’s spring, after all, which is also the time for renewal and new beginnings.
Pasta With Roasted Tomatoes, Arugula and Cheesy Breadcrumbs
1/2 cup toasted breadcrumbs (recipe below)
2 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound grape or cherry tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced or pushed through a press
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound gemelli or fusilli
Combine the breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons Pecorino in a bowl.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and continue to cook, 2 to 3 minutes more, stirring frequently. Add the salt and pepper and taste for seasoning. Transfer the tomatoes and pan juices to a large bowl.
While the tomatoes are cooking, make the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook per package instructions until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, then drain the pasta.
Add the pasta, arugula, the 1/3 cup cheese and half of the breadcrumbs to the tomatoes. Toss to combine. If the pasta is too dry, add some of the reserved water, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time. Divide among serving plates and sprinkle with the breadcrumb gremolata. Serve immediately.
Yield: Makes about 2 cups
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the bread in a food processor and pulse to make fine or coarse crumbs. Transfer to a bowl. Add the oil and toss to coat. Lightly season with salt and toss again. Spread the breadcrumbs on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake in the oven until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring the crumbs once or twice. Turn off the oven and crack the door open. Let the crumbs cool in the oven. Store in an airtight container for up to one week or in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Lynda Balslev is an award-winning writer, cookbook author, and recipe developer based in northern California. Visit TasteFood at TasteFoodblog.com.