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the secrets of the old: pasta with breadcrumbs and sweet onions

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By Jen White · January 13, 2012 · 0 Comments ·

Yesterday I read a great article on alternet.org that my friend Meredith highlighted on her blog, The Boiled Down Juice: it's called Compost Cuisine, and it's full of really interesting ways that a few chefs in California are using "whole vegetables" in the same way other chefs use whole animals, or in other words, using all parts of the animal, from head to tail.  They're doing things like stuffing squash stems and slow-cooking kale stems until they're soft like pasta, and reducing lemon and carrot peels into flavor-packed "ash" in the oven.  I don't know if I'm up to ashing my vegetable peelings, but it's fun to see what possibilities there are in cooking things that we would otherwise throw out, or if we're more sustainability-minded, throw in the compost pail.  It's good to find creative, delicious ways to use up what's old.

One thing I do know how to do is use up the old loaf of ciabatta or rosemary bread I bought on the weekend that I thought I could easily eat before it got hard as a rock (which I never succeed at--it always toughens on me): I make pasta with breadcrumbs, a rustic peasant dish from southern Italy. It may sound weird, or bland, or overly carbohydrated, and I thought all of those things about it too, before I made it.  But once I tasted it, I was hooked.  It's such a comforting dish, rich with olive oil, quick to prepare, and makes use of the stale bread and other bits and bobbles you have lingering in the bottoms of jars or in the pantry...plus it's amazingly tasty. You'd never guess such good, simple flavors could shine so brightly, but they do.

My favorite things to add to the breadcrumbs are sweet caramelized onions, kalamata olives, and anchovies, but this time I used a couple of shredded chicken thighs off a rotisserie.  You can add any number of good-tasting things, like sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, capers, chopped tomatoes, raisins, harder vegetables like asparagus or green beans, olives, roasted peppers, eggplant, herbs, bacon, leftovers...even top it off with a fried or poached egg.  The only things required are pasta, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. After that, the skillet's wide open. Have fun! And if you have some leftover, fry it in some olive oil in a pan the next day, letting some of the noodles get a little crispy...oh my heavens, that's good.

pasta with breadcrumbs and sweet onions

  • 3 or 4 1"-thick slices of stale ciabatta or other rustic, European-style bread
  • 12 to 16 ounces linguine or other pasta
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
  • 1/4 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives (or pine nuts, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, etc.)
  • 1 cup shredded cooked chicken (or shrimp, pork, anchovies, etc.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
  • parmesan or other grating cheese for the top


  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.  Cook pasta according to package directions, drain well, and toss with 2 teaspoons of olive oil.
  2. While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, make the sauce: cut the bread into 1 1/2" chunks and toss them in a blender or food processor.  Process until crumbs are formed, with some larger ragged bits remaining.
  3. In a large skillet, heat 1/2 cup olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with sugar.  Stir over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until starting to soften, then reduce heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes, until very soft, dark golden, and sweet. There should still be a good amount of oil in the pan.
  4. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute.  Add the breadcrumbs and stir well to coat them with olive oil.  Saute for about 3 minutes, until crumbs are toasty.
  5. Add rosemary, olives, chicken, and red pepper flakes, and stir everything together for a few minutes until the chicken is heated through and all is mingled together.  If it needs moisture, add a splash of pasta water or chicken stock. Taste and add salt or pepper if necessary.  If the pasta is still cooking, keep warm over a low heat while you wait.
  6. When the pasta is drained and tossed with olive oil, add it to the skillet and toss a bit with tongs to distribute all the goodness.
  7. Grate cheese over each serving: perfetto.


serves 4

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