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Eat this! Bricole, an Italian answer to hard times

Pamela Sheldon Johns’ <i>pasta alle briciole.</i>

Pamela Sheldon Johns’ pasta alle briciole.

What it is: Bricole is the Italian word for breadcrumbs, which were historically used as a seasoning in northern Italian cuisine. Sometimes called “poor man’s Parmigiana,” they represent “cucina povera,” the cookery of poverty, at its most frugal, according to Pamela Sheldon Johns, author of “Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking.” “Women would save every breadcrumb until there were enough to dress pasta, garnish soups, or flavor roasted or grilled vegetables,” she says.

Pamela Sheldon Johns

Pamela Sheldon Johns

Where it comes from: “In Tuscany,” says Johns, “so many people still remember the dire poverty of the times before, during, and just after World War II. My book has stories from individuals who lived through these hard times. It doesn’t take long for any conversation about the traditional dishes here to turn into stories and remembrances of how precious each breadcrumb was in the past.”

Tuscan bread is salt-free, Johns notes, “because up until a few years ago, salt was heavily taxed and was used only for the things that were absolutely necessary such as curing meat and making cheese; none was spared for bread. In any event, bread was baked only once a week, and bread made without salt dries out within a day, as salt is what holds the moisture in the bread.”

Thus many classic recipes, such as ribollita and panzanella, use dry or day-old bread.

What to do with it: “Using these crumbs as a condiment for pasta is a great (and delicious!) example of the idea of ‘good food for hard times,’” says Johns, who will teach a Tuscan cooking class in Chicago Wednesday, Aug. 31. In this recipe from her new book, breadcrumbs are tossed with sauteed garlic and spicy red pepper flakes to create a spicy, crunchy topping.

Pasta alle briciole
Pasta with spicy breadcrumb topping
Pamela Sheldon Johns

1 pound pasta (such as pici, bucatini, or spaghetti)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups coarse dried breadcrumbs
3 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and saute the breadcrumbs, garlic and pepper flakes until the crumbs are golden. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain and let cool.

Drain the pasta, add the topping, and toss. Serve at once. 6 servings.

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