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Living by bread alone

By SHANNON WATKINS

shannon@southwesttimes.com

 

Well, I feel like I spent the last two weeks getting you well-provisioned early for holiday entertaining, which is no surprise since I was raised by a mother who has most of the year’s Christmas shopping sewn up by July. (“DON’T GO IN THE CLOSET; YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO SEE WHAT I GOT YOU” was a popular refrain in my childhood home from about midsummer on.)

At any rate, we can dial back and relax and go on to more trivial but satisfying recipes, like croutons.

In Adam Davies’ early millennial novel “The Frog King,” the callow, unfaithful protagonist asks, “Why are croutons the perfect snack? Because they’re already stale.” He’s right. I don’t know what it is exactly, but store-bought croutons, even fresh from the box or bag or pouch, always do seem slightly past their prime, and for reasons that have never been clear to me also sort of taste the way fresh cigarette smoke smells.

The best thing to do, then, is whip up a batch of your own, which is fairly easy and can be accomplished with minimal fuss. When people try your croutons, assuming you get around to sharing, they’ll think at first that you must also be the sort of formidably impressive gourmet who makes her own cheese and keeps an herb garden, even if all you have around is Velveeta and a glass bottle of dried parsley from 1979. Then they’ll go bug-eyed at how delicious these things are, and ask timidly if you could make them a batch sometime.

These came about as a result of wanting something to put in my soup and not feeling much like crackers. I was horsing around with another recipe I found online and it wasn’t until I made them that I figured out what the real point of croutons is: watching a good show with your favorite drink in hand and tossing these little nuggets back like popcorn. A few found their way into my soup; all of them found their way into my stomach.

You can use whatever bread you like, although I can tell you from experimenting that there’s nothing like a good Jewish rye. Rye has a lot of flavor and can stand up to all kinds of different soup or salad without batting an eyelash. To keep from dodging explosive oil, I’d recommend getting the seedless variety.

There’s a variation on this recipe with garlic; you smash a clove and toss it into the oil while you’re frying the bread. I notice that the heat you need to make the bread brown is also one that will leave you with burnt garlic, which in turn will make your croutons taste like rancid rubber tires. I’d infuse the garlic into the oil on low heat for a few minutes, remove it, and turn the stove up before you toss the bread in.

Rye Croutons

Several slices of rye bread

Olive oil

Table salt (as opposed to coarse grained salt)

Preheat oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with foil. Stack the bread slices on a cutting board and slice into 1” or so squares. Place a skillet on the stove and turn heat to medium or medium high (you may have to play with it for a bit to hit the sweet spot, depending on the heft of your pan and how quickly your stove usually gets going). Cover bottom of pan with olive oil and give it a minute or so to warm up. Toss a square of bread in. If it starts sizzling, add a couple handfuls of the other ones. If it starts browning too fast, fish it out and lower the heat just a little.

Once the cubes are golden brown on one side, flip them over; it’s a pain to corral each of those things and make sure they all get equal treatment here, but the results are worth it. Once both sides are done (the whole thing takes 3 minutes, max) scoop them into a bowl and toss them with a pinch of salt. Spread them on the cookie sheet – you’ll likely be able to fit about three skillets full on it – and bake them for about 5 minutes. Most of them should be crisp when you’re done. Store in an airtight container after they cool.

They come out tasting like savory, crispy little salted sponges dipped in warm olive oil. Did you just look down and realize you’ve accidentally eaten a whole batch? Guess you’ll have to make another one if you’re giving any to that friend who asked for some. Once they’re done you should probably taste a few to make sure they’re OK first, though.

 

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