After last week’s column, we had a minor domestic. The current Mrs Johnston took me to task for omitting one of her more celebrated oeuvres (and there are many), to wit her famous blinis. I contemplated including them today, but we are battered out. The breadcrumb is the thing.
And here I shall pause for a rant. In this context the average British domestic cook stands accused of laziness and profligacy. How much stale bread is thrown away each day? And how many packets of Ruskoline (yuk) or, worse still, Panko breadcrumbs (come oan!) fly off our supermarket shelves daily? To the rant I shall return. In the meantime it might be worth taking a step back to consider why we use breadcrumbs at all.
Well, they can add a bit of crunch, a bit of texture and a bit of colour. They featured in the recent cauliflower collection: at the other end of the scale, you may find a scattering of them on your lobster Thermidor as it emerges from the grill. We use them for frying. Why? For something delicate such as fish, they help it keep its shape. For the likes of chicken, pork or veal, they form a seal, helping to keep the meat succulent. They can also be used as flavour carriers, mixed with salt, pepper, herbs, cheese or whatever. Incidentally, you may enquire about the bright orange of Ruskoline. Paprika extract. (I kid you not, I just read the label in the shop.) But first and foremost using leftover bread is to avoid waste, an essential in poorer societies. I am sure this happened all over the world, but it is found to good effect in the increasingly popular region of Puglia, in the “heel” of Italy. Their cucina povera is now being hailed as a very healthy diet, albeit one born of economic necessity. There was very little meat, a lot of vegetables and nothing, absolutely nothing, went to waste. One could imagine an Italian version of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch, where each person boasted about how his upbringing had been the poorest. One would no doubt complain about having a single tomato for a whole pan of pasta: another might talk about half a spoonful of grated cheese. The Puglian would probably win with-
Spaghetti with Breadcrumbs (serves 4 as a main dish)
320g spaghetti; 200g breadcrumbs; 2 – 3 cloves garlic crushed; 1- 2 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional); olive oil; salt. (Other optional extras might include grated lemon zest, a handful of chopped parsley, a chopped anchovy or two, or just the oil from the anchovy tin, or whatever you might have to hand.)
Cook the spaghetti in the usual way. Retain a couple of cups of the pasta water when you drain it. While the pasta is cooking, fry the garlic in some oil over a medium heat for a minute or two. Stir it constantly and watch it like a hawk. You want it to turn golden to take the harsh edge off. If you allow garlic to burn, not only will it turn bitter, it will be inedible and your kitchen will smell for hours. If that happens, throw it away, clean the pan and start again. Fortunately your pasta takes 10 minutes to cook, so you have time to recover from your egregious error. Add the breadcrumbs and chilli flakes, and any other optional extras apart from parsley. Fry for 3 minutes or so until the breadcrumbs are golden. Loosen the mixture with a little pasta water, then stir the pasta into the crumb mixture. (Italians always add pasta to sauce, not the other way round). Sprinkle with the parsley if using, toss together and serve at once.
How to Make Breadcrumbs and How to Use Them
Back to the rant. Ghastly Ruskoline will cost the equivalent of £2.50 per kilo: Panko, an astonishing £10! I did the costing exercise on my home made bread. The ingredients for an 800g loaf will set me back about 50p. So why are we buying them in? One answer, I suppose is that it can be fiddly to get the consistency right if doing it by hand. The Italian word for breadcrumbed is pangrattato, literally grated bread. Even with stale stuff, it is difficult to get an even crumb. A Magimix is unwieldy for small quantities. I would counsel any serious cook to invest in a mini food processor. Great for herbs, perfect for breadcrumbs. Now the fresher the bread, the more it will absorb the cooking oil. It is probably better to dry your crumbs either by toasting in a dry pan or in a baking tray. (My guru and mentor Mr C suggests you should dry the bread before blitzing it into crumbs. I quite like the rustic look – choose what suits you.) You can freeze breadcrumbs, so make a decent batch, and keep them frozen for up to 3 months in sealed bags. The Panko PR machine boasts that their crumbs are made without crusts, as the bread is baked in a special way. If that really bothers you, I have an ingenious solution – cut the crusts off. End of rant. The technique for breadcrumbing or to panée, as the French would say, is the same for all foods; however, my experience is that not everyone knows them. The following recipe is an example. Alternatively, use veal (for the classic Wiener Schnitzel) or pork fillet. The meat should be about 1½ – 2 cm thick. Some recipes will suggest it should be thinner. I disagree – I don’t want the coating to be the same thickness as the meat.
Allow one medium size chicken breast per person (a large one might serve 2); 1 egg, beaten; plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper; breadcrumbs; lemon; oil and butter for frying.
Butterfly the chicken breast. (Slit it down the middle without cutting completely through, and open it up in a butterfly shape.) You will see a strip of meat, often known as the faux-filet, in the middle. Remove, and set aside for something else. (Fried in butter for a few minutes they make a wonderfully decadent sandwich filling.) Using the heel of your hand, flatten the chicken to the desired thickness. (A more professional way of doing this is to put the meat between two sheets of clingfilm on a board, and flatten with a rolling pin or mallet – but not one of these studded meat tenderisers.) On three separate plates (plates are easier than bowls, as you’ll discover, though the one for the egg needs to have enough of a lip to prevent spillage) put, in this order, left to right, flour, egg and breadcrumbs. Have a clean plate or board for the breaded chicken, large enough to hold all the pieces in one layer. Top Tip – use one hand only, preferably your non writing hand. Why? This is a messy process. If you are doing a few, you may need to shake the plates of flour and crumbs to level them up again. Until you get used to quantities you may have open a cupboard for more. If both your hands are covered with a claggy mixture, your kitchen will become a war zone. One at a time dust both sides of the chicken in the flour, shaking off any excess. Then dip in the egg, then in the breadcrumbs. Make sure all parts are covered and that it is fairly evenly coated.
The secret of a good schnitzel is in the cooking, in particular the temperature of the oil. Too hot and it will turn too dark before the meat is cooked: too cool, and the oil will soak into the crumb, giving a final result which is unpleasantly greasy. Put a generous amount of oil in a frying pan (about 2 cm) and place over a medium to high heat. Test the temperature by dropping in a cube of bread. It should start to sizzle immediately; however, if the oil is spitting the pan is too hot. Your chicken will need about 2½ -3 minutes per side. Don’t fiddle with it in the pan and turn only once. A minute or so after turning, add a generous knob of butter. Once it is melted, baste your schnitzels. If the butter oil is turning too brown, a squeeze of lemon will stop the process. Drain well on kitchen paper. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon juice. Fried food is a rare treat. I like this with some crunchy sauté potatoes and a green salad, perhaps with rocket and watercress, or baby spinach.
Thanks to Mr C, aka professional chef Robert Corrigan. who read an advance copy of this article and made a number of constructive criticisms. Always remember that you are reading the scribblings of a rank amateur. The rants are all my own work.