During my student days I never threw any food out. I used the gloop in the bottom of the gravy boat as the basis for a pasta sauce (good with mushrooms and cream), turned leftover rice, studded with shreds of chicken and egg, shrimps and chilli, into fried rice that was perfect for a hangover, cooked plums that were on the turn into a small pot of jam. But then I stopped, feeling I was being mean in wringing the last drop of goodness out of everything. In fact, when a Scottish acquaintance told me of her 'garbage soup' (containing everything in the fridge that was past its best), I finally thought frugality could be taken too far.
Lean times, though, force us to re-evaluate, and the current financial climate has me happily rethinking the way I cook. I mean, don't you just hate throwing out bread? It is the stuff of life, the one food in Morocco that will be eagerly retrieved if dropped, then wiped and kissed, yet we bin the end of a loaf without a second thought.
Making breadcrumbs is one of the frugal habits I didn't quite manage to lose (though I did do it in secret). Discard the crust, cut the bread into evenly-sized pieces, whizz in the food processor then bung in the freezer.
A stuffing is the most obvious way to use old bread, and sage and onion is the least of it. Go Caribbean and mix your crumbs with lime zest, thyme, spring onion, chilli and rum and use it to stuff a chicken (an idea from Haiti) or toss breadcrumbs with sautéed aubergine, dates, coriander and pine nuts for a Middle Eastern-inspired filling for lamb. You just need enough fat – in the form of butter or oil – to bind it and keep the bread moist. And you don't have to stop at stuffing meat. Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, mushrooms – all can be enhanced by flavoursome crumbs.
Think beyond stuffing and you'll hit on some of the chic-est platefuls around – the bread salad panzanella, bread-and-butter pudding, pain perdu. The fashion for peasant food has seen us exalt dishes that were created to use up old bread. Its ability to soak up flavours, to be soft or crispy and to thicken a dish, make it one of the most useful leftovers. See that sausage and bean casserole that isn't rib-sticking enough, or that mushroom soup that's a bit thin? Throw in a handful of brown breadcrumbs and watch them come together.
So this hoarder of stale bread can – happily – come out of the closet. Save your bread, I say! Just look at what you can do with it.
This dish is a sort of French apple brown betty. Use eating apples so that the fruit retains some texture after cooking.
225ml orange juice
1kg eating apples, peeled and cored
125g soft light brown sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
150g wholemeal breadcrumbs
Put the raisins and juice in a small pan and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for five minutes. The raisins should get very plump. Halve the apples and slice finely. Arrange half of them in a buttered baking dish; I use an oval one about 26x20cm, and 5cm deep.
Sprinkle on half each of the sugar, zest and raisins (plus liquid). Scatter over half the crumbs and dot with half the butter. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients. Put in an oven preheated to 180°C/ gas mark 4 and bake for 45 minutes or until the apples are tender and the top is golden. Leave to cool slightly then serve with whipped cream or crème fraîche.
Fried or dried breadcrumbs – pangrattato – were devised as a way of providing crunch, flavour and texture to pasta dishes when you couldn't afford parmesan.
They're great for throwing on vegetables as well, such as purple-sprouting broccoli, sautéed mushrooms, and cauliflower with saffron.
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 tsp dried chilli flakes
15g flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
100g breadcrumbs from a coarse white country loaf or ciabatta
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water. While it is cooking, heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a large frying pan and sauté the garlic and chilli for 90 seconds. Don't let the oil get too hot or you will spoil its flavour. Heat the oil for the breadcrumbs in another frying pan and fry them over a medium-high heat until golden. It should take about three minutes.
Drain the pasta and tip it into the frying pan with the garlic. Season and heat for one minute. Toss with the parsley and breadcrumbs and serve immediately.
I never liked the idea of ribollita – it is, after all, cabbage soup, and I've spent too much of my life on the cabbage-soup diet – but this is a wonderfully rich dish. Make it slowly, with care and good ingredients (especially stock and olive oil), and you will be rewarded. Prepare the day before and reheat to serve.
250g savoy cabbage
1 stick celery, finely chopped
100g leek, washed, trimmed and chopped
100g waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
75g carrot, diced
1 litre chicken or beef stock
50ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 sprigs rosemary
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
6 slices coarse white country bread, each about 25g
125g cooked cannellini beans
2 large plum tomatoes
Core the cabbage and slice the leaves. Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan and sauté the celery and leek for five minutes until pale gold. Add the potato, carrot and cabbage and cook for a further 12 minutes, stirring the vegetables every so often.
Add the stock, bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 45 minutes.
While the soup is cooking, heat the olive oil in a frying pan with the rosemary and two of the garlic cloves (leave the skin on). When the oil starts to shimmer and the ingredients turn light brown, remove from the heat and leave to infuse. Toast the bread and rub each piece with the remaining clove of garlic, peeled.
Add the beans to the soup and cook for 10 minutes. Drop the tomatoes into a bowl of boiling water and leave for 10 seconds or until the skins are ready to come off. Lift them out and rinse in cold water, then slip off the skins.
Halve, deseed and cube the flesh. Add the tomato and the flavoured oil to the soup (discarding the rosemary and garlic). Taste for seasoning.
Break the bread into bits, then spoon a layer of soup into a large, clean saucepan, followed by a layer of broken bread, continuing with more bread and soup until it is all used up. It will seem quite solid, but everything will come right on the reheating.
Leave to cool then put the pan in the fridge overnight. The next day remove it from the fridge and allow the soup to come up to room temperature.
Bring to the boil and serve, drizzled lavishly with extra-virgin olive oil.
© Stella magazine/The Sunday Telegraph
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