Let’s talk about breadcrumbs. I know what you’re thinking, here comes the Queen of Carbs again to lecture us about putting bread on top of pasta. Because I love you, dear reader, and I want you to know that you’re seeing all of me (like that time when Rob put Kylie’s phone number on Twitter because she didn’t invite Blac Chyna to the baby shower, and we all knew things were really going down because NO KARDASHIAN would ever fake a fight against the ratings of the first presidential debate, when the entire country was busy watching Donald Trump implode*), I’m going to be honest and tell you that I start from the premise that bread on top of pasta is great.
But you may doubt. You may think that bread on top of pasta sounds decadent, or redundant. You may be one of those pasta eaters who tops with fresh basil leaves, or grated parmesan, or fresh ricotta or — when you had a cocktail before dinner and don’t ask how much the special pasta costs because you really don’t want to know — a shaving of fresh black truffle. Those are generally understood to be the all-time best pasta toppings. But I want to throw breadcrumbs on the list because they add a certain crunch that most pastas lack.
I first experienced breadcrumb-ed pasta at Porsena in the East Village, where chef Sara Jenkins tops a delicious spicy lamb pasta with toasted breadcrumbs. (I love that dish so much, it inspired this spicy lamb and roasted red pepper cous cous.) They’re hefty and salty and crunchy, and they just work. Inspired, I started making my own breadcrumbs. When bread gets old and a little soggy in our fridge, I slice it up, toast it until it’s dried, let it cool, and pulverize it in the food processor — then it goes into a gallon-sized ziplock bag in the freezer. It gets pulled out in small scoops and fried up with olive oil, and sometimes even a little garlic or rosemary or parmesan. (These same breadcrumbs also find their way into simple meatballs and turkey chili and even occasionally on top of baked mustard chicken and shaved brussels sprouts salads.)
I also want to get something awkward out of the way: this recipe requires no fewer than three stovetop cooking implements, and none of them can go in the dishwasher, and the one that seems easiest to cut is the breadcrumb skillet. But can I just say that I’ve made this pasta without the ‘crumbs and it wasn’t as good? The tomatoes were meaty and the ricotta was creamy and the dish was hearty and still, somehow, summery and light. But it didn’t all come together and hit me like it did with the breadcrumbs, because they really make the dish pop. (Er, snap? Crackle?) So you may be tempted to skip the breadcrumbs, but I promise they’re not as fussy as they seem, and they’re definitely worth the extra effort.
Flashback! One year ago on Leighto-Greato: Chana and Aloo
Two years ago on Leighto-Greato: Green Chicken Posole
- ¼ c. plus 1 T. olive oil, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- Two big handfuls of garden cherry tomatoes (or 2 pints from the grocery store), halved
- ¼ c. breadcrumbs
- 1 lb. dried pasta, any shape (the craggy kinds are best and the smooth spaghetti kinds, like the one in the photo, are the worst, though still very good)
- ½ c. grated parmesan cheese
- Handful fresh basil leaves, torn into smaller pieces
- Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
- In a large pot, heat ¼ c. of olive oil over medium-high heat. (Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, you want a large pot here because later you're going to add the mostly-cooked pasta to this pot and do quite a lot of stirring, so a bigger pot will mean fewer pesky little pieces of pasta flying about and less sauce drying on your stovetop.)
- Add the garlic. Saute until fragrant and golden brown, about 3-4 minutes, then fish out the garlic cloves and set them aside.
- Reduce oil to medium heat and add your tomatoes, along with a generous dusting of kosher salt and fresh pepper. Give them a few good stirs, so they are all coated in garlicky oil, and then let them cook until jammy and browned in spots. This will take a while, and should be finished right around the time the rest of the dish is ready to come together.
- While the tomatoes roast, make your breadcrumbs. Mince the browned garlic and put a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Add 1 T. olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic and a fat pinch of kosher salt. (If you want to get crazy and add a pinch of parmesan cheese in there, too, no one will complain.) Mix, mashing the crumbs into the bottom of the pan to break up any lumps, until the bread crumbs are evenly coated, and toast until browned. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil over high heat. Add the pasta and stir periodically to keep it from sticking together. Boil until it's not quite al dente -- when you bite into a piece, it should still have a little spot of uncooked white in the middle. I find this stage usually comes along about ¾ of the way through the package cooking time.
- Prepare for your pasta by putting a colander inside a large mixing bowl. I do this in the sink because I'm a spiller. You do you.
- When the pasta is not quite done, pour it into the colander inside the mixing bowl and immediately transfer to the pot of tomatoes. Don't shake off too much of the pasta water -- if you aren't dripping from the sink to the stove, you're doing it wrong.
- Turn the tomatoes and pasta up to high, and add about ½ cup of the reserved pasta water. Give the whole thing a good stir. Cook over high heat until the water has evaporated into a glossy sauce and the pasta is al dente (if the pasta isn't al dente, add another ½ cup of pasta water and keep stirring -- repeat as many times as you need to for the pasta to cook through). Turn off the heat and stir in the parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
- Serve hot, topped with breadcrumbs and a scoop of fresh ricotta.
* I just realized that Kris Jenner could have masterminded the torpedoing of this whole story. When Rob called and was all, “I’m putting Kylie on blast because y’all didn’t invite my baby mama to our baby shower!” Kris was like, “No! Okay, fine, do it, but on Monday between 9:00pm – 10:30pm ET and only when it has been at least 15 minutes since Anne Coulter tweeted.” So Rob — sweet, clueless, sock-designing Rob — started his beef right around the time that someone finally told Trump that he’s living in his own reality, and Kylie had a new number before Hillary humble bragged about studying for the debate, and most of America missed the whole thing.