Leftover bread. It’s January’s topic for the Cucina Conversations roundtable and this month, Carmen, Daniela, Francesca, Flavia, Lisa, Marialuisa and I are sharing recipes from around the boot which include the staff of life. From north to south of Italy, pane raffermo – meaning stale or better yet, ‘hardened bread’ – is utilised by cooks in a dizzying variety of dishes. In Tuscany, slices of unsalted bread are used to thicken soups like pancotto and pappa al pomodoro. Soaked pieces of day-old bread are thrown in to make acquasale – an extremely satisfying summer salad of tomatoes, onion and cucumber – that much more filling in the southern region of Puglia. And in Pellegrino Artusi’s home region of Romagna, pangrattato or dried breadcrumbs are mixed with eggs to form worm-like noodles cooked in a comforting meat broth called passatelli.
Dishes like those detailed above are testament to past foodways when scarcity and hunger were widespread in Italy. As Gillian Riley says in The Oxford Italian Companion to Food: ‘Bread was never wasted; scraps, crusts, even crumbs were saved and used in a range of imaginative ways… This was respect for an elemental, indispensible source of life, a necessary frugality, and a need to make the most of something delicious in itself’. Scarcity and hunger, thankfully, are far less common in the country these days. I grew up, however, witnessing those frugal ways of time past in my Italo-Australian family’s approach to food and cooking. Any of the sesame-coated sourdough bread nonna Sarina had baked that didn’t get eaten was cut up into pieces, left to harden and pulsed in a food processor until those pieces turned into pangrattato or breadcrumbs. These remaining fragments of Nonna’s baking were kept in a freezer bag or glass jar, ready to be used whenever a dish called for it. Platefuls were used for coating cotolette or breaded veal cutlets. Sometimes they were rolled into meatballs. They also featured in the ripieni or stuffings for artichokes, tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants.
I’d be lying if I said I was always virtuous about keeping leftovers and food scraps. TT’s half eaten apple and that plateful of leftover pasta I didn’t end up reheating yesterday are just a couple of the things lurking guiltily in the compost under my kitchen sink right now. But bread is another story. Since I started living on my own and cooking for myself, I’ve always kept a jar of breadcrumbs ground from any avanzi (leftovers) I happen to have on hand. In my first abode, a tiny studio flat with a two burner stove in western France, I used a wooden pestle or a rolling pin to break hardened baguettes or country loaves to coarse fragments. Now I’m lucky enough to have a kitchen with enough room for a high powered food processor to grind these to a fine meal. As for recipes that require day-old bread to be soaked, I always have a few slices of these on hand in a paper bag in one of my kitchen draws. And, just in case my bread is too fresh or not raffermo enough, I simply put the offending slices in a low heat oven until they have the required consistency to make crostoni, bread soups and stuffings.
I would have loved to have shared a recipe for a stuffed tomato, capsicum or eggplant, quite possibly my favourite preparations including leftover bread as a child. I’ve just come back to Turin though, and winter is just not the season for these nightshades. Artichokes are an option but I prefer globe ones (as opposed to spearheaded spiky ones) for stuffing and they’re proving harder to come across in Turin’s markets right now. There is, however, a stuffed (winter) vegetable dish (and a Piedmontese one at that) that I’ve been wanting to cook for a while now and that’s for sciule piene, meaning ‘stuffed onions’ in Piedmontese.
I’ve consulted many a regional cookbook lately and I’ve come across lots of recipes for stuffing this humble allium. Local cheeses, minced meat, broken up pieces of sausage, and surprisingly enough, crushed amaretti biscuits, are just some of the ingredients which feature in the fillings for recipes calling themselves stuffed onions alla piemontese. One thing unites them all though; the use of leftover bread in some form.
In the end, the curious addition of crushed amaretti (see this post and this post for more about these biscuits) won me over. Though the macaroon-like variety of amaretti appear to have been invented in Saronno in neighbouring Lombardy, these biscuits feature strongly in Piedmontese cookery. Battered amaretti, as well as apple fritters (more about these very soon!), are used to sweeten the region’s otherwise savoury mixed fry-up or fritto misto. They also feature in many local desserts and puddings, such as the bonet. And, as Elizabeth David – one of the authors whom I consulted when researching this recipe – points out: ‘… the dish is obviously a survival from the days when a mixture of savoury and sweet, with plenty of spices, was perfectly normal’. When looked at from these points of view, the recipes for sciule piene including this biscuit suddenly sounded less odd.
A few notes on the following recipe, which I’ve adapted from the above-mentioned author of Italian Food. I adjusted some amounts in the ingredients list below to suit using 5 large onions as opposed to the 6 medium sized ones she calls for. I also couldn’t bring myself to use the total amount of amaretti she indicates (¼ lb or 115 g), preferring to limit these to 50 g and upping the Parmigiano! David is spot on though with her advice when it comes to the task of hollowing the onions. These should be boiled or steamed until soft, skins on and all, to avoid shedding any copious tears later on when removing your onions’ inner layers. And, just to make the task of hollowing your alliums even easier, seek out large, round-shaped bulbs. These are more likely to have more even layers that facilitate all that excavating you’ll be doing!
Ingredients (serves 4-5 as an antipasto)
- 1 large slice (about 100 g) leftover (preferably sourdough) day-old bread, crusts removed
- 20 g sultanas
- milk, for soaking
- grappa, for soaking
- 5 large onions, weighing about 250 g each
- 65 g Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
- 50 g amaretti, crushed
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- coarse sea salt, freshly ground
- 4-5 peppercorns, freshly ground
- half a cinnamon stick, freshly ground
- three cloves, freshly ground
- butter, for greasing
Put bread to soak in a bowl with just enough milk and the sultanas in just enough grappa. In the meantime, boil or steam the unpeeled onions for 20 minutes or until soft to touch. When they have cooled, peel off their skins. Cut 6-7mm thick slices off the top of each onion. Set aside. With a paring knife or melon baller, carefully remove their inner layers, leaving a shell of two to three outer layers intact. Chop and reserve a large handful of the extracted onion. Set aside the leftovers for another use.
To make the stuffing, drain the bread and sultanas of any excess liquid and place in a large bowl. Add the cheese, the chopped onion and lightly beaten egg and bring together until just combined. Pound the seasoning and spices together in a mortar until ground to a fine meal and season the stuffing to taste.
Distribute the stuffing evenly among the hollowed onions, adding a knob of butter to each one. Place the cut-off tops onto the stuffed onions and bake in a butter-greased oven dish at 180ºC for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until the onions are golden brown, with bottoms that have sunk and caramellised noticeably. Remove from oven and leave to sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
Still looking for more ideas on how to use that leftover bread in your pantry? Then check out my fellow bloggers’ recipes:
- Carmen has prepared one of my favourite primi ever which calls for the use of dried breadcrumbs, pasta mollicata. Hmmm, if I had to choose a desert island ingredient, it’s a tough call between the anchovies used in this dish and the onions I just wrote about!
- Daniela is sharing a lovely chocolatey recipe from her childhood in Lombardy called paciarella. Crushed amaretti also feature in this cake! Yum…
- Francesca has also gone the pasta route and is making us spaghetti with tuna, breadcrumbs and lemon.
- Flavia is making us some polpette di carciofi or artichoke meatballs.
- Like me, Lisa loves radicchio and couldn’t resist making bruschetta with her leftover bread, topped with this maroon and white speckled chicory and speck.
- Last by not least, Marialuisa has put the leftovers of Christmas feasting and a family wedding to good use in her meatloaf or polpettone di recupero.