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The Poor Man's Parmesan

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Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget—without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: No, breadcrumbs are not the same as Parmesan, but they'll still sate your salty, crunchy, oily cravings.

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Spaghetti Aglio e Olio with Broccoli

I have an internal debate every time I sidle up next to the cheese aisle: To Buy Parmesan Cheese or Not To Buy Parmesan Cheese, that is the question. I pick up craggy, irregular hunk after hunk, hoping to find one that is miraculously under $10. No dice. Is the cheese worth the high price tag? Depending on how hungry I am while grocery shopping or how bad of a week I’ve had, the answer is yes. 

The bummer about Parmesan is that there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a double-edged sword: The nutty, salty, tangy cheese is inimitable—but that’s how it keeps selling for such high prices. I’m not going to tell you whether or not to treat yourself to Parmesan; that’s an internal dialogue you’ve got to have with yourself. I am going to tell you about a substitute that, in a pinch, will sate your Parmesan craving. It may seem unconventional and downright far-fetched, but this substitution actually has a precedent in Italian cooking. 

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So what are we talking about?

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs.

We did not make up this concept on our own; Italians were making the "poor man’s Parmesan" many, many years before we were. It seems Parmesan has long been an expensive commodity, so when Italians couldn't (or wouldn't) fork over enough to buy some, they'd sprinkle oily, toasted breadcrumbs over their pasta dishes. Smart, right?

Breadcrumbs that are toasted in olive oil (that has sometimes been infused with garlic, citrus zest, anchovies, or chili oil) and sprinkled with salt take on most of the same notes as Parmesan. They're savory, unapologetically rich, and nutty from toasting. They also have the added benefit of texture; unlike Parmesan, they won't melt into your warm spaghetti.

Spaghetti Pangrittata

Here are a few tricks to make the most of your Poor Man's Parmesan:

-- Make your own breadcrumbs. Use crusty bread, good-quality olive oil or butter, and nice flaky salt if you can. After all, you’re saving money by not hitting up the cheese aisle.

-- Add garlic, anchovies, dried herbs, chili pepper, or citrus zest to your pan of olive oil as it heats up to infuse your breadcrumbs. And don't skimp on the oil! 

-- As always, add a fried egg. The oozing yolk mingles with the breadcrumb shards in a textural paradise.

-- Choose your pasta shapes wisely. My favorite is orecchiette, whose little scoops are prenaturally disposed to cradle all the salty, oily breadcrumb goodness. 

-- Don't stop at bread! Try toasting some pulverized oats with oil, garlic, and salt and use them to top pasta or casseroles.

More: Feeling especially ambitious? Use some hand-rolled Tuscan pici pasta as your next breadcrumb canvas.

Broccoli and Cheese Macaroni Casserole

But don't stop at spaghetti:

-- Use toasted breadcrumbs to top baked pastas and casseroles to get the coveted caramelized, crunchy lid.

-- Toss them warm into salad of greens like collards, kale, or chard, and watch them soften and mellow.

-- Sprinkle some on top of a bright tangle of lemon-dressed shaved vegetables to balance the acidity.

-- I haven't tried this yet, but I imagine toasted breadcrumbs would be lovely as a final touch to soup in lieu of a shower of freshly shaved Parmesan.

Chard Salad with Breadrumbs and Walnuts

And if you do decide to invest in Parmesan, make sure you store it right. Also, don't waste one iota of that pricey wedge; use the rind to make flavorful, creamy Parmesan broth—or add it to your soup pot along with carrots and celery for added nuttiness and creaminess.  

What else do you think would benefit from an addition of the Poor Man's Parmesan? Let your breadcrumb imaginations run wild.


Tags: cheap, budget, cooking, weeknight, quick, easy, pasta, breadcrumbs, parmesan,