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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oh, that fennel: Pasta with breadcrumbs!

These past few weeks, I set about to create a dish that was remembered from long ago: a traditional Sicilian dish, pasta with breadcrumbs or Pasta con Pangrattato.  My first attempt was a result of family and friend discussions, internet and cookbook  research. The recipes mostly called for anchovies, breadcrumbs, olives, capers, and olive oil, as well as seasonings. I used store-bought unflavored breadcrumbs from an Italian bread bakery.  The result was tasty but just OK.  The breadcrumbs had a sandy texture, the flavor was savory but was too subtle. The olives and capers were fine but we felt there was too much going on. We were looking for something that was delicious and savory, but simple. I couldn't go overboard with the anchovies I am the only one in my family who enjoys them. So I set out to make a breadcrumb mixture that could stand on its own without the sharp anchovy flavor.

One suggestion to improve the breadcrumb texture was to make breadcrumbs the old fashioned way: hand grating.  I cut up some leftover Italian bread and let it sit a few days in a brown paper bag. With the use of a repurposed meat grinder, we grated the rock-hard bread. The resulting crumbs were not uniform, as they are when store bought, which I thought should improve the texture. I put it away for the next day. That night, I did some more research and then heard from my friend Mary Ellen, who is Sicilian, and found that in this dish, which is a traditional dish made for St. Joseph's day in March, calls for the use of fennel leaves in the pasta water! I never heard of such a thing, and I had those pretty fronds that I packed away a few days ago, left over from the fennel dish I discussed in my last blog post. I couldn't believe it. It is supposed to give a very subtle flavor, I couldn't wait to try it.

  The next day, I  gathered all the other ingredients together:
Pictured: the fennel fronds, garlic, olive oil, cayenne pepper, Sicilian sea salt, and Pecorino Romano cheese and basil leaves for garnish. I decided to use Barilla fettucini for the pasta.

I "dry-fried"  2 cups of the crumbs, which means that no fat was used in a hot pan, until they were golden brown. Dry-frying them maintains crispness.  I also separately  "dry-fried" 2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine, until they were golden and crispy but not burnt. After the crumbs were done, I added seasonings and then added enough olive oil so that the crumbs clumped together. Please season to taste! Taste until the seasonings are to your satisfaction. Try not to over-salt since you will be adding cheese to the final dish This is what the crumbs looked like, nice and brown:
While doing this, I got the water for the pasta to a rolling boil, and added salt, and then the fennel fronds until they gave off a lovely fragance. I let them boil for about 5-10 minutes. I use a drain insert in my pasta pot, so I pulled the fronds out and discarded them. I then added the pasta and cooked them until they were al dente.

I tossed the crumbs together with the pasta in a large bowl.  I sprinkled the cheese over the pasta, and some lovely basil leaves for garnish. At the end, I drizzled olive oil over all.

It was very tasty: a satisfying crunch from the breadcrumbs, savory from the garlic and cayenne pepper and salt, and because of the olive oil, the crumbs adhered well to the pasta. And the fennel: there was a subtle taste, not to mention that my kitchen had a wonderful fragrance!!!

Pictured above is an individual serving...take my word for it, it was delicious and very easy to do!

As I mentioned, we had a great time drying the bread, and grinding it in our hand-grinder. The results were amazing!  However...I visited our new Fairway Market in Pelham NY a few days later and found an interesting product: Artisan crumbs!!! Just like our crumbs, they varied in size, and used in another dish, were virtually the same. So if you do not have time to dry the bread, find an old grinder, and grind the bread, you can just visit the Fairway! Here is the link: Like Stew Leonard's, Fairway is a carnival of food...if you love to shop like I do, and some people do, going through those aisles is both entertaining and enlightening.

Anyway I would like to remind you all that I really appreciate your comments, however I get them. Many people find it confusing as to how to post on this blog, but it is quite simple: just sign in to Google or Yahoo, or if you don't have an account, just sign up which just requires some simple information. You don't have to use their email or any other service. With feedback, I can improve or add to my blog. Any suggestions, recipe requests or criticisms will be most appreciated!!

Happy Fall, everyone!