It’s true that I have trust issues with recipes. If I’m skeptical, I may proceed as instructed, but I try to be prepared should I feel the need to change course. So, although I was intrigued by a pasta recipe that suggested a topping of breadcrumbs in place of parmesan, I had a wedge of parmigiano reggiano ready and waiting just in case. This came from Delicious magazine a few months ago, and I can’t seem to locate the recipe online so I’ll include it below. Spicy breadcrumbs were made by toasting chunks of day-old bread that had been tossed with olive oil and dried chile flakes and then processing them to crumbs once cool. They were tasty breadcrumbs, and they were certainly going to add a flavorful, crispy element to the pasta dish, but I wasn’t convinced they could completely replace the experience of a good parmigiano reggiano. I had just received some fennel from my CSA, and making fresh pasta is one of my most favorite kitchen tasks, so with some back-up parmesan to shred over each plate of pasta should it be necessary, I was ready to experiment.
I made the fresh pasta from Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition since this has become my go-to pasta recipe. I cut the fresh pasta sheets into thin spaghetti and let the strands dry for a bit while working on the breadcrumbs. Half a loaf of day-old bread, and I used some leftover Norwich sourdough which had been stored in the freezer since Christmas, was cut into chunks and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and red chile flakes. The bread chunks were toasted on a sheet pan in the oven until dry and crisp, and they were left to cool. Then, they went into a food processor with some fronds from the fennel and were pulsed until crumbly. Next, the fennel bulbs were prepped by slicing them thinly with a mandoline or Benriner. Lemon rind was supposed to have been cut into thin ribbons, but Kurt isn’t a fan of big pieces of citrus rind in savory dishes, so I zested the lemon with a microplane instead. Last, garlic was minced, and cooking could commence. While water for the pasta boiled, olive oil was heated in a large saute pan. The fennel and garlic were gently cooked over medium heat so as not to brown the fennel but just to allow it to soften. The lemon zest was added, and after a short dunk in the boiling water, the drained pasta was added with lemon juice and more olive oil. Everything was tossed about in the pan to combine and warm through, and then it was served topped with the breadcrumbs.
This dish ended up delivering two surprises. First, I had assumed the fennel would retain its anise bite since it was so gently cooked. Although it didn’t even brown in the pan, it did soften and become sweeter and was not at all like sharp, raw fennel. The bright lemon juice and zest mingled nicely with it. The other surprise was that the breadcrumbs were delicious and satisfying in a way that I didn’t expect at all. With the salt, chile flakes, and fennel fronds, the crunchy bits of bread were all the dish needed. At the end of the meal, the wedge of parmigiano reggiano had gone completely untouched.
Spaghetti with Fennel, Chile, Lemon, and Breadcrumbs
adapted from Delicious magazine
half a loaf of day-old bread such as a sourdough rustic loaf or ciabatta
2 teaspoons dried chile flakes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 organic lemons (organic is important here since the peel will be used)
3 fennel bulbs
12 ounces long strands of thin pasta (make fresh pasta if you have time)
Salt and pepper to taste
-Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut or pull the bread into chunks and place on a baking sheet. Toss the bread chunks with two tablespoons of the olive oil, the dried chile flakes, and a big pinch of salt. Spread the pieces into an even layer and bake for about 10 minutes until golden and crisp. Then, set aside and allow to cool.
- Zest one lemon and then cut both in halve to be juiced. Remove and discard the outer leaves of the fennel and reserve 1/2 cup of the fronds. Thinly slice the fennel, and using a Benriner is the quickest way to do it.
- Place the fennel fronds and cooled bread chunks in a food processor and pulse until crumbly.
- Boil a large pot of salted water for the pasta, and time the cooking of the pasta for it to be ready when the fennel and lemon zest have cooked (fresh pasta will cook must faster than dried). Meanwhile, heat three tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the sliced fennel to the saute pan, and cook while stirring for a couple of minutes. Add the minced garlic and continue to cook for three minutes until the fennel begins to soften. Add the lemon zest, reduce heat to low and cook for another five minutes or so. The goal is for the lemon and garlic flavors to meld with the fennel, but the fennel should only gently cook and not brown. When the pasta has cooked, drain it and add it to the saute pan. Add the juice from the two lemons and the remaining olive oil, and toss to combine.
- Serve the pasta and fennel topped with a generous handful of the breadcrumbs, and I promise you won’t need a single shred of parmesan.
I’m submitting this to Yeastspotting where you’ll find some seriously well-made bread.