This cheap, easy ingredient is the secret to the best Italian food

And most people throw it away


When we think of Italian food, we usually think of pizza and pasta. Which may be why we always underestimate the most beloved carbohydrate of all: bread.


While they don’t get as much love abroad, Italian bread is just as exceptional and expressive as pasta, with just as much diversity. There are the white-bread “turtles” and “spiders” of Emilia Romagna, the pita-like puccie of Puglia, the ciabatta of Veneto, the “insipid bread” of Tuscany, the focaccia of Genoa, the friable grassini of Piedmonte, the translucently thin pane carasau of Sardinia, and the crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside pinsa of Lazio . . . and we haven’t even scratched the outer crust.


Italians eat bread with everything. Salad? Comes with bread by default. Salami and cheese? Always accompanied by a bread basket. Even pasta comes with bread (which we then use to wipe up the sauce at the end). In Italy, when a person is exceptionally kind and trustworthy, we don’t say that he is as good as pizza. We say that he is as good as bread: Buono come il pane. It’s the greatest compliment you can ask for.


The Sardinian pane carasau (photo courtesy of Vistanet)

Bread is food for all occasions. We eat it with watermelon on the beach. We soak it in milk in the mornings and spoon it for breakfast. We wrap it with prosciutto for an afternoon snack and smear it with Nutella for an impromptu dessert. We toast it, fry it, boil it, soak it, dry it, grind it, ball it and sauté it. You name it, we do it to bread.


The only thing we don’t do to bread is thrown it away. Why would we? Even when it’s hard and cold, Italians have hundreds of delicious recipes specifically designed to resurrect a stale loaf. Bruschetta? Yesterday’s bread toasted and drizzled in EVOO. Arancini and eggplant parmesan? Rolled in the breadcrumbs from yesterday’s bread and fried. Ribollita? Yesterday’s bread transforming an otherwise boring soup into a dense, filling stew.


I hope, with time, I can share all these stale bread recipes with you because they all deserve their moment in the limelight. But for now, here’s a favorite that will inspire you to save every last crumb:


Photo courtesy of Superricette

Bread balls (polpette di pane)

This might be my favorite stale-bread recipe. It’s basically a meatless meatball composed of bread, egg, and cheese, which means it’s impossible to make it anything but delicious.

This recipe is a variation on an Apulian dish called pallotte cacio e ova — with some substitutions to adapt to what’s available in most American grocery stores — but the idea of rolling ingredients up into balls and cooking them is pretty universal, with almost every culture on Earth having some variation. There’s the Persian kofta, the Swedish köttbullar, the Japanese tsukune, and the Thai thịt viên ... you get the idea. So while these bread, cheese, and egg balls are Apulian, the idea is as old as cooking itself.


Like any recipe, you should treat this as a guideline, not a rulebook. Use what you like, skip what you don’t. And definitely get creative with it! You can add in some ground meat or eggplant to make it a meal in itself (both of which go wonderfully in a tomato sauce). Load it up with any of your favorite veggies to make it a healthy, wholesome dinner. I’ve made a zesty summer version with dried tomatoes and basil. I’ve made an earthy version with spinach and sesame seeds. You can get weird with it too. Unexpected combos like orange zest, nutmeg, and marsala wine can make a delightful twist on a classic.


(If you do add in some veggies, just make sure that you cook them beforehand and press out any excess water. Otherwise, your bread balls will turn to mush.)

Ingredients

(Serves 3–4)

Bread — 1 standard loaf (500 g / 1 lb) Milk — 1 cup (250 ml) Egg — 2 medium whole eggs Parmesan or pecorino cheese — 1/2 cup grated (about 60 g) Parsley — one sprig EVOO — 1 tablespoon Garlic — 1 clove Salt — to taste Breadcrumbs — As needed

METHOD

  1. Take your stale bread, cut it into small chunks, and soak it in the milk. (The bread must be stale and dry for this to work! Fresh bread won’t do.)

2. While your bread is soaking, finely chop the parsley and garlic and mix them together. Add in the eggs and cheese.

3. Once your bread has absorbed all the milk, mash it up with a fork until it’s smooth and uniform. It should feel a bit like creamy mashed potatoes.

4. Mix all the ingredients together. The texture should become thicker and dough-like. If the mixture is too wet, add in some breadcrumbs or some extra cheese to toughen it up (you can also pour off some excess liquid if you need).

5. Roll the dough into balls.

Now your bread balls are ready to be cooked! Here are some options . . .

A. Simmer them in a chunky tomato sauce on the stove.
B. Set the oven to 350 degrees. Line a sheet pan with baking paper lightly brushed with olive oil. Place the breadballs in rows and bake them for 25 minutes, or until they turn golden brown.
C. Fry them! To fry them, you’ll need: · 1 egg · 1 cup of breadcrumbs · oil for frying
Fill a deep pan less than halfway with the frying oil of your choice. Simmer the oil in a pan. While the oil is heating, crack the egg and scramble it in a bowl, and spread the breadcrumbs across a plate. One by one, roll the breadballs in the egg, then across the breadcrumbs. Once the ball is fully lined with breadcrumbs, carefully place it in the oil with a slated frying spoon and let it fry for 1–2 minutes. Once the breadball is ready, remove it from the oil and place it on a dry paper towel.
(***REMEMBER: Frying at home can be dangerous. Never leave the pot unattended and never let the oil exceed 350 degrees. Always have a wet cloth on hand, just in case, and always use a long set of tongs or a frying ladle to maintain a safe distance.)


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