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October 13, 2017
A Cabinet Full of Crunch

For Alison Roman, the author of Dining In, no meal is complete without a sprinkle of something crunchy.

If you’ve ever put away an entire bag of salt and vinegar chips in one sitting, know that you’re not alone—but also know it’s not totally your fault. Us pleasure-seeking humans are completely wired to worship all things crunchy. There’s a reason Lay’s has its own team of food scientists who devote their research to determining the most pleasing level of crunch. In many cases, crunch is a sign of freshness. In all cases, crunch keeps things interesting. It gives our brain something to focus on other than just, well, swallowing—keeping us engaged as we eat.

While chips are great and all, there comes a time when you’re forced to take a hard look in the mirror and realize that Cheez-Its aren’t an acceptable topping for that elegant pasta you just whipped up. This is why I like to keep my kitchen stocked like I’m running a savory Pinkberry: Tiny jars, plastic cups, and ziplock bags full of tiny, golden, crunchy things for me to sprinkle onto whatever I’m shoveling into my mouth that day. And this is why crunchy condiments feature so heavily in my new book, Dining In.

There are garlicky bread crumbs waiting for salads and pasta; salty, seedy granola for savory breakfast toppings and out-of-hand snacking (for when I run out of the chips, obvs), and bags full of toasted and chopped nuts ready to be scattered over roasted vegetables, leafy greens, and chocolaty desserts. Texture is often one of those things that you won’t miss until it’s gone. (Ever had a soggy-bottomed pizza?) But great news: You never have to cook without it again. Here are some easy-to-make crunchy things to keep in your pantry:

Sure, they add texture, but when combined with the right things—chopped herbs! Anchovies! Grated cheese!—bread crumbs can also provide boosts of much-needed flavor, freshness, and saltiness. Because store-bought bread crumbs can be so wildly inconsistent (I grew up on Progresso and I mean no disrespect, but the texture there is sandy, not crunchy), I prefer making my own from large loaves of crusty bread.

To do this, take bread (sourdough, miche, ciabatta, even baguette) and cut it into one- to two-inch pieces (I leave the crust on, but feel free to remove it). Working in batches, break down the cubes of bread in a food processor until you’re left with tiny pebbles of bread (future bread crumbs!). Pick out any larger pieces that didn’t break down and continue until all the bread is more or less the same, tiny size.

You can store these fresh bread crumbs in ziplock bags in the freezer for up to a month, or transform them into crispy, crunchy golden bread crumbs right away.

To do that, heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the 2 cups of the fresh bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring pretty frequently until the bread crumbs turn a nice golden brown, about 4 minutes. From here, you can add a few cloves of finely chopped garlic or some grated Parmesan cheese, and stir another minute or two to finish toasting the bread crumbs until they’re the color of a good graham cracker. Or skip the garlic and cheese and stir in a handful of finely chopped herbs (like parsley or rosemary) and a pinch of crushed red chile flakes at the end. OR! Add some anchovy fillets to the olive oil before the bread crumbs—for what is probably the most delicious bread crumb, the anchovy bread crumb. The choice is yours, and there are no wrong choices. You can keep the toasted bread crumbs around in a ziplock bag for up to a week.

Under the umbrella of “seeds” you’ve got the classics: sesame, flax, poppy. And then some more unexpected ones that are actually spices, if we’re being technical. But still, fennel, cumin, and nigella are seeds, and they are crunchy and therefore I will use them as such. They can restore texture to something roasted or add a bit of excitement to what I think is a pretty boring food.

Keeping a personalized blend of toasted seeds in a jar on your counter will mean that you will be able to use them pretty much like a seasoning blend, sprinkling over lemony raw radishes, using as a salad topper, tossing with carrots before roasting, or adding to oats when making your new favorite thing, the Decidedly Not Sweet Granola below.

Nuts are nature’s crouton: buttery, crunchy, and toasty all at once without even really trying all that hard, which is why I so often have to restrain myself from putting them on everything. When I was writing my book, it was like “You get a nut! YOU get a nut! And YOU get a nut!” and I had to pump the breaks. But can I be blamed? I add them to herby gremolata for some richness and textural excitement. I use them instead of actual croutons (sorry, croutons) on salads and sautéed leafy greens, and toss them with butter and flour as a superlatively crunchy topping for fruit crisps.

When using nuts, there are no rules, except the rule that you’ve gotta toast them for a few minutes in a frying pan or on a cookie sheet in the oven until they start to turn just slightly darker in color. Once you’ve done that, they will be maximally crunchy, and all of their best flavors will come out. That’s it! The only rule. And I know it can be annoying, and you’ll probably burn at least one batch, but you know what? Maybe next time set a timer.

RECIPE: Decidedly Not-Sweet Granola

Alison Roman

Alison Roman is a cook, writer and author of the best selling cookbook Dining In, published by Clarkson Potter in Fall 2017. Her second cookbook Nothing Fancy, comes out Fall 2019 and is available for pre-order now.