Dry bread crumbs (Recipe: baked cherry tomatoes)
Since the age of seven or so, I've worn eyeglasses.
As a little kid, I hated them, and when I reached high school, I couldn't wait to get contact lenses. But in college, the combination of my night job and early-morning classes made it difficult to pry my eyes open and put the contacts in every morning.
So, reluctantly, I went back to glasses. I had one pair, which began to bore me after a week or so, and I shoved them on my nose every day and never gave them a second thought.
One day, my mother said to me, Glasses are just a fashion accessory. You have more than one jacket, why not more than one pair of glasses?
Of course, accessories have other roles to play; scarves provide warmth, cufflinks link cuffs. Bread crumbs add texture and crunch and bulk, and for delicate foods, they give protection from heat so the food won't overcook. But bread crumbs on top of mac and cheese, or a cassoulet, are there for one important reason: to dress up the dish.
Dry bread crumbs, made from dry or toasted bread, are easy to make, but even easier to buy; you'll find them flavored or plain, in canisters, in the Italian foods aisle of every grocery store. They have an incredibly long shelf life, but they don't last forever, so here's a tip: after you open the canister, mark the date on top. If you don't use them within six months, toss them out.
Almost any bread can be used to make bread crumbs, though better bread will make tastier crumbs. When you slice a loaf of fresh bread, save the heels and leftover slices in a bag in your freezer. When you need bread crumbs, defrost your frozen bread bits, slice into 1/2-inch slices and bake in a slow oven (200°F) until very dry. When the bread is completely cooled, process the slices in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, and grind to desired consistency.
Use bread crumbs in pasta with lemony broccoli and walnuts, baked Jerusalem artichokes, stuffed mushrooms with feta cheese and Kalamata olives, maple and mustard glazed chicken, or a classic eggplant parmesan.
And if you're living gluten-free, you need not be without accessories in your cooking; try this tasty bread crumb alternative.
Baked cherry tomatoes
Adapted from Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, this beautiful side dish takes no time to prepare, and takes advantage of the cherry tomatoes that are available in markets year-round. Our friend Greg made this when a group of friends cooked together last weekend; didn't he do a beautiful job? Serves 8.
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
30-36 cherry tomatoes (depending on size)
2 Tbsp dried (but not old) oregano
3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup plain dry bread crumbs
Fine sea salt
Fresh black pepper
1 Tbsp roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Drizzle 1 tsp of the olive oil in the bottom of a 9-inch standard glass or ceramic pie dish.
Cut the tomatoes in half cross-wise (not through the stem end). Chop the oregano and garlic together until the garlic is minced. Add the bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Place half of the cherry tomato halves, split side up, into the pie pan, arranging them so they remain upright. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the bread crumb mixture. Top with the remaining tomato halves, rounded side up, to look like whole tomatoes again. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the tomatoes.
Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, garnished with a bit of chopped parsley.