My teenage daughter, Dahlia, likes to snack on flakes of sea salt, nibbling them out of hand like tiny potato chips. So, I wasn’t exactly surprised to see her standing over a freshly made batch of anchovy bread crumbs, eating them with a spoon.
Salty and crunchy, with a touch of chile-driven heat and a funky hit of umami, they were meant for the pasta I was making later that night. But I had to agree that they were pretty tasty on their own.
Who needs pasta, Dahlia quipped, let’s just eat bowls of bread crumbs for dinner!
I had a better — or, at least, more momlike — idea. Instead of ditching the pasta, I’d add half of what I usually used and scatter double the amount of crispy bread crumbs on top. I’d need a sauce to keep the bread crumbs from sliding off the pasta: Some sautéed eggplant and tomatoes would simultaneously glue things down and round the dish out. And a handful of capers would add just the right tang.
That is how this colorful, garlicky, crumb-topped eggplant pasta came to be.
The toasted, seasoned bread crumbs themselves are a classic Italian garnish called pangrattato. A thrifty topping popular in Southern Italy, bread crumbs are flavored with some combination of garlic, chile flakes, herbs and anchovies, then sprinkled over pasta or cooked vegetables in place of more expensive grated cheese.
Usually, a dusting suffices. But for this dish, I prefer an avalanche. The crumbs’ crispness nicely contrasts the soft eggplant and juicy tomatoes, especially if you eat the dish right away. But it’s still excellent at room temperature, when the crumbs have softened and taken on an almost meaty texture. Either way, you can’t lose.
One caveat: Don’t use the sawdustlike crumbs in the cardboard cans. They’re too fine to contribute any texture to the dish. Homemade bread crumbs from a stale, flavorful loaf are ideal. I keep the ends of bread loaves in a cloth sack in the pantry, then grind them up in the food processor when the bag fills up (use the large-holed grating disk first, then whirl them with the blade). But if that seems like a lot of trouble, panko bread crumbs work nearly as well.
To serve, toss some of the crumbs with the pasta in the pan. Then pass the remaining crumbs around at the table for extra topping — or direct snacking, if that’s how your household rolls.