torn croutons

I was at the coffee bar at Whole Foods and ordered a medium latte. The barista asked, “Skim milk, ma’am?” [we’ll not talk about how I feel about being ma’am-ed right now, I think.] I said, “No, whole please.”  He stopped mid-turn, looked at me and said (probably to the chagrin of his manager) “Well, damn, lady! You my kind of woman!”

It was hilarious – and clearly it made my day if I’m writing about it a week later – but it also made me think about what I eat and why.  I don’t always take my lattes with whole milk, but I never take them skim.  I use butter, and real sugar. I fry chicken in a combination of lard and canola oil. I like food that tastes good and feels good – I’d rather eat a little of something real than a lot of an imitation.  Just my perspective, and I’m here to tell you about how I eat and cook – not how you should.  But I’m sharing this because it might illuminate my complicated relationship with salads.

See, salads don’t really do it for me.  I know I should like them, but I generally just don’t.  I view them as vehicles for delicious things, and wonder why I’m not eating just the delicious things instead.  I don’t let this stop me from making and eating salads, though – I’m just trying to find one that is worth the effort it takes to make and then eat it.

My near-vegetarian sister and her husband came for dinner last night, so I did a riff on a Cobb salad. We each assembled our own, hitting just the right balance of light and satisfying – some poached chicken here, roasted tomatoes there, ripe avocados and crisp chunks of bacon complementing each other’s taste and texture, hard-cooked eggs … and these crisp-juicy “torn” croutons.

Despite our divergent goals for the salad, we all enjoyed it, and we all agreed that these croutons were the most decadent, scene-stealing component.  They’re simple to make, and the result is a crisp, golden exterior that yields to your bite to expose a chewy, moist, and garlic oil-scented center.  They’re not diet food, but they are a great way to gussy up a pile of green, or just to snack on … which is exactly why I have none leftover for tonight!

Torn Croutons
(adapted from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc)

1 loaf ciabatta bread or other country bread with an open crumb
1/8 – 1/4 cup canola oil
1/8 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Remove crust from the bread, and use your fingers to tear the inside of the bread into 1- to 2-inch chunks.  Set aside. (You’ll need about 3 cups of bread for this recipe, so reserve any remainder of the loaf for other uses.)

Meanwhile, heat 1/8 cup canola oil and 1/8 cup olive oil in a large skillet over low heat.  Add enough canola oil to make the oil about 1/8″ deep.  Add the smashed garlic cloves and cook over low heat, turning the cloves every so often, until they are golden brown.  Remove the cloves.

Raise heat to medium and add the 2 tablespoons of butter.  When the butter has melted, add the bread chunks in a single layer, stirring and tossing them so they absorb the oils.  Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium or medium-low heat until the bread is golden and crispy on all sides – 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve warm, over salad or in soups, without draining the croutons.

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