In the opening of the “Crumbs” chapter of “Bread Toast Crumbs” (Clarkson Potter, $30), author Alexandra Stafford describes the transformative moment when she first fried eggs over a few tablespoons of fresh bread crumbs saturated in olive oil. “It’s hard now today to look at a listless, crumbling slice of bread and not consider its future: crisped up and showered over pasta, soaked in milk and mixed into meatballs, saturated in oil and spread across a gratin,” she writes.
She acknowledges she’s tapping into what good (and thrifty) cooks have known for years: Bread too stale to be eaten fresh and the crumbs and small bits at the bottom of the cracker box are culinary gold. Those crumbs, whether savory or sweet, can add richness, flavor and texture to whatever you’re making. They’re far too valuable to end up in the trash.
I asked Lisa Rochon how she felt about crumbs. Rochon is a native of New Orleans, transplanted to Atlanta about 20 years ago. A culinary consultant and instructor, she has a wide range of experience owning and operating restaurants and catering firms in New Orleans, New York City and Atlanta. She can be found every other Saturday morning at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market with her line of household and entertaining items.
Teaching is a passion for Rochon and recently she was demonstrating her recipe for a muscadine and sweet pepper salad at the Peachtree Road market (look for the recipe in the In Season column next summer).
After the class, when I asked about crumbs, her eyes lit up. “I love crumbs! Savory ones like bread, cracker, potato and corn chip crumbs. Sweet crumbs like cookie and cake crumbs! There’s never a need to throw out stale cookies or broken potato chips.”
Turns out food waste is on the minds of more than just chefs. Overhearing our conversation, market shopper David Aferiat volunteered that he loves vegetable peel “crumbs.” He dehydrates the peels of root vegetables like beets, turnips and carrots and then turns them into crumbs with a mortar and pestle and uses them to sprinkle on salads and flavor risottos.
Later, Rochon and I sat down to talk crumbs. “My favorite way to use crumbs is in breading. Mix bread crumbs and potato chips and put them in the food processor with nuts like pecans or almonds. That’s a perfect coating for redfish, swordfish, any hearty fish. If you make the crumbs fine enough, you can use them to bread shrimp and make delicious oven-fried shrimp with them.”
She reminded me that corn and potato chips are gluten-free so they work well when you’re cooking with folks who are eating paleo or gluten-free. Think vegetarian burgers with those crumbs as a binder or crisp coating.
“I love a mix of crumbs for savory cheesecakes. Think how delicious it would be to have a corn chip crust with a chicken-black bean-corn cheesecake. Or a cheesecake with chicken and roasted peppers. Or something with Moroccan or Mediterranean flavors.”
The ideas just came tumbling out. Crumbs added to a traditional spinach dip to thicken the mix. Cookie crumbs combined with almond flour to make the crust for individual servings of pudding or chocolate mousse. Cookie crumbs to decorate a gorgeous layer cake that would give any piped buttercream-decorated cake a run for its money. White cake layers flavored with almond and lemon zest, then covered with lemon-flavored buttercream and a coating of gingersnap crumbs.
When Rochon gets to the bottom of a bag of cookies or crackers, she dumps the crumbs into jars, separatng by flavor. “If I don’t think I’ll use them right away, I’ll put them in the freezer or refrigerator. Otherwise, they can sit on the counter. For bread crumbs or anything with a little moisture in it, you should go ahead and freeze them. Then they’re ready when you need them, no thawing required.”
Again, mining crumbs for culinary gold is nothing new. Almost 40 years ago, Jean Anderson and Ruth Buchan included a chapter on crumbs in their cookbook on dealing with food waste, “Half a Can of Tomato Paste and Other Culinary Dilemmas.” (Harper & Row, out of print). Along with tips on storage and recipe ideas, they offer this handy list of crumb equivalents for times when you just don’t have enough saved crumbs on hand:
Making use of your crumbs may feel like a small thing, but it yields delicious results and helps you be just a little less wasteful.
Most recipes using crumbs are flexible. A lot of bread crumbs on hand? Add more to your recipe. A little short on crumbs? Crush up a few more cookies or crackers, or substitute a little panko in savory recipes. Here are three delicious ideas from Atlanta chef Lisa Rochon.
Cracker Crumb Seafood Cheesecake
This savory cheesecake would work as a breakfast entree, lunch with a salad, appetizer nibble or main course. Served slightly warm, the texture will make you think it’s filled with crabmeat even if there wasn’t a crab claw in sight.
Our recipe calls for a mixture of fish and shrimp, but you can use whatever seafood you prefer. All crawfish? Half scallops and half shrimp? Crab and redfish? It’s up to you. The cheesecake in our photo uses shrimp and salmon for a pretty pink-dotted filling. Rochon likes this seasoned with either Tony Chacherie’s Creole seasoning or Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute.
If you have concerns about tasting the mixture for seasoning while it contains raw eggs, mix up everything except the eggs, taste and correct your seasoning and then stir in the eggs when adding the seafood and cheese.
And the crumbs are up to you, too. This is a great way to use up a mixture of cracker crumbs, or throw in some potato chip crumbs or bread crumbs. Any of these will work. Eating gluten-free? Just use your gluten-free cracker crumbs. The recipe calls for a minimal amount of crumbs. More crumbs on hand? Use them, up to double the amount called for here, adding double the butter as well, and press them higher up the sides of your pan.
Corn Chip Crumb Lady Pea Lentil Cakes
This recipe is genius. Vegetable “burgers” are always delicate, often falling apart when you saute and turn them. Rochon has eliminated the problem by baking these cakes. They firm up perfectly in the oven. Make no mistake, they’re still a little delicate, but you won’t end up with a plate of lentil cake crumbs instead of cakes.
These gluten-free cakes work for breakfast (with a side of eggs), lunch (in a wrap) or dinner (with a beautiful salad). They take well to garnishes and are delicious served with chutney, tzatziki, pesto or sweet chili-garlic sauce. Rochon’s favorite is either the tzatziki or an arugula-mint pesto.
Leaving your corn chip crumbs a little chunky makes sure you really get the wonderful corn flavor. It’s a natural with the lentils and these generally Indian seasonings. You can double the amount of crumbs called for here and really beef up the crust on your cakes.
Not only can you be flexible with the crumbs in this recipe, you can be flexible with the beans as well. If fresh lady peas or black-eyed peas are available, they are wonderful in these little cakes. Cook them in lightly salted water until tender. No fresh peas? Substitute a 12-ounce can of drained and rinsed chick peas or cannellini beans.
Prepared lentils are becoming more widely available. Trader Joe’s sells a 17.6-ounce package of steamed lentils, or you can find 15-ounce cans of cooked lentils at Earth Fare. Either works fine here, or substitute 2 cups of your own cooked lentils.
If you want to prepare these ahead, form the cakes, arrange on a baking sheet and freeze. Then carefully move them to a freezer container, keeping them flat. When ready to serve, no need to thaw. Just arrange the frozen cakes on a baking sheet and add a little more baking time to what’s called for below.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Crumb Cake
Rochon suggests using almond milk in this recipe if you’re serving those who are lactose intolerant. Do not use soy milk. And only use pure vanilla extract. There’s no place for artificial flavors here.
To create the beautiful cake in our photograph, you’ll want to double the amount of frosting and cookie crumbs given here. Rochon’s favorite chocolate chip cookie to accompany this vanilla-flavored buttercream frosting is Trader Joe’s.
But you can adapt this cake for your favorite flavors. For example, substitute the zest of 1 lemon and a little lemon juice in place of the vanilla extract for a lemon-flavored buttercream and then use crumbled gingersnaps in place of the chocolate chip cookies. Want chocolate buttercream? Add 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder with the powdered sugar.