Crumbs for dinner, in the best possible way
By Melissa Clark
My teenage daughter, Dahlia, likes to snack on flakes of sea salt, nibbling them out of hand like tiny potato chips. So, I wasn’t exactly surprised to see her standing over a freshly made batch of anchovy breadcrumbs, eating them with a spoon.
Salty and crunchy, with a touch of chile-driven heat and a funky hit of umami, they were meant for the pasta I was making later that night. But I had to agree that they were pretty tasty on their own.
Who needs pasta, Dahlia said. Let’s just eat bowls of breadcrumbs for dinner!
I had a better — or, at least, more momlike — idea. Instead of ditching the pasta, I’d add half of what I usually used and scatter double the amount of crispy breadcrumbs on top. I’d need a sauce to keep the breadcrumbs from sliding off the pasta. Some sautéed eggplant and tomatoes would simultaneously glue things down and round the dish out. And a handful of capers would add just the right tang.
That is how this colorful, garlicky, crumb-topped eggplant pasta came to be.
The toasted, seasoned breadcrumbs themselves are a classic Italian garnish called pangrattato. A thrifty topping popular in southern Italy, breadcrumbs are flavored with some combination of garlic, chile flakes, herbs and anchovies, then sprinkled over pasta or cooked vegetables in place of more expensive grated cheese.
Usually, a dusting suffices. But for this dish, I prefer an avalanche. The crumbs’ crispness nicely contrasts the soft eggplant and juicy tomatoes, especially if you eat the dish right away. But it’s still excellent at room temperature, when the crumbs have softened and taken on an almost meaty texture. Either way, you can’t lose.
One caveat: Don’t use the sawdustlike crumbs in the cardboard cans. They’re too fine to contribute any texture to the dish. Homemade breadcrumbs from a stale, flavorful loaf are ideal. I keep the ends of bread loaves in a cloth sack in the pantry, then grind them up in the food processor when the bag fills up (use the large-holed grating disk first, then whirl them with the blade). But if that seems like a lot of trouble, panko breadcrumbs work nearly as well.
To serve, toss some of the crumbs with the pasta in the pan. Then pass the remaining crumbs around at the table for extra topping — or direct snacking, if that’s how your household rolls.
Eggplant pasta with anchovy breadcrumbs and capers
In this colorful dish, there’s as much of the eggplant and tomato topping as there is pasta. They’re all tossed together with loads of garlicky, anchovy-imbued breadcrumbs and a hit of fresh basil or parsley. Serve it with a big salad of crisp lettuces for crunch. It’s a dish that’s good hot, warm or at room temperature, so you can make this recipe a little ahead of time if that works best for your kitchen flow.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 8 cups)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound short pasta, such as shells or orecchiette
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling and as needed
12 anchovies, coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves, 3 grated or finely minced, 5 thinly sliced
1 cup coarse dry breadcrumbs, either panko or homemade
1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more for serving
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 cup torn fresh basil or parsley
1 lemon, zested and halved
1. Place eggplant in a bowl and sprinkle all over with salt; set aside.
2. In a pot of well-salted water, cook pasta according to the package directions until about 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain well, reserving some of the pasta water (about 2/3 cup is plenty). Lightly drizzle pasta with olive oil to prevent from sticking together.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir in about one-quarter of the chopped anchovies and all of the grated garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in breadcrumbs and sauté until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with a few grinds of black pepper and a pinch of salt. Scrape into a small bowl and set aside.
4. Wipe out skillet (no need to wash it). Add 1/4 cup olive oil and put it back over medium-high heat until oil thins out in the pan. Add enough eggplant to fit in one layer without overlapping. Without moving them around too much, cook eggplant until brown on one side, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir and let them cook on the other side until browned and thoroughly soft, 3 to 7 minutes more. Use a slotted spoon to transfer eggplant to a large bowl. Repeat with remaining eggplant, adding more oil to the pan as needed.
5. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet and stir in remaining anchovies, the sliced garlic and red-pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat until garlic is pale gold at the edges (don’t let the garlic turn brown), 1 to 3 minutes.
6. Stir in tomatoes and capers. Cook until tomatoes just begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggplant, pasta and 1/4 cup pasta water. Toss well, adding more pasta water if the mixture looks dry.
7. Stir in basil and lemon zest. Squeeze half a lemon all over the pasta and toss. Taste and add more red-pepper flakes, salt or lemon juice to taste. Generously sprinkle breadcrumbs on top of pasta and serve hot, warm or at room temperature.