Leftover Makeover: How to Cook with Stale Bread

In certain regions of Italy up until the 1950s and 60s, a fair number of people were paid in bread — namely freelancing shepherds. This meant wasting so much as a slice was like throwing away money. Your modern version of #getthatbread may not involve actual wheat loaves, but there’s no reason to trash expired or stale bread — yes, even cheap sandwich slices.

Consider it the carb-ier version of nose-to-tail cooking.

Katie Parla, a New Jersey-born food writer who now lives in Rome, uses stale bread in a number of her Italian dishes, including 10 drool-worthy recipes from her new book, Food of the Italian South: Recipes for Classic, Disappearing, and Lost Dishes.

Parla teaches The Manual how easy it is to cook with stale bread and tosses us a recipe direct from her new book that will wow your Sophia Loren-caliber date. Or, if Parla’s visiting your city on her book tour, have her teach you the recipe in-person at one of the events.

What Bread Can I Use?

Food of the Italian South book cover
Food of the Italian South

Parla says, “Virtually any kind of bread can be used as long as it’s ground up to coffee-ground size for dishes like paccheri alla cilentana, raschiatelli alla mollica, swordfish rolls, and filling for mussels. (Yes, all these recipes are in her new book.)

Before freaking out and assuming (based on the names of those dishes) that using stale bread is too difficult, know that you’re basically making fancy breadcrumbs and croutons to top on pasta and use in casseroles. (BTW, here’s how to cook pasta right every single time.)

“Try leftover whole wheat slices for the breadcrumb filling recipes,” Parla says.

For u pan cuott (baked bread and provolone casserole), Parla suggests “using a stale sourdough that has a little more taste still. You’ll use more of crouton-sized pieces that you cube. The recipe does say to use leftover bread.”

Food of the Italian South U Pan Cuott
U pan cuott Food of the Italian South

What about moldy bread? Your mama was right, just cut that part off. “Use common sense. If it’s damp and moldy all over don’t cook with it, but we tend to overbuy bread because it’s affordable. Now people can actually use it for something,” Parla says.

How to Make Breadcrumbs

Take your loaf of hard bread and smash it, Office Space-style (“Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta” optional). Parla says not to worry about seasoning bread crumbs separately, since whatever dish you decided to make will have its own herbs and spices to include for that meal.

“If you’re making stuffing for mussels or swordfish, you’re already adding a lot of seasoning,” Parla says. “A dish like raschiatelli alla mollica, you’re treating breadcrumbs like cheese. You can add oregano or pecorino, mix it up, drizzle with olive oil, and bake in the oven or fry in a pan.” Then top your pasta with it.

Now, to try a stale bread recipe.

Cozze Ripiene (Stuffed Mussels)

Food of the Italian South Cozze Ripiene
Cozze ripiene Ed Anderson

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound mussels (about 25), beards removed and scrubbed
  • 2 cups fresh bread crumbs
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 ounces (about half a can) tuna in oil, drained
  • .25 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Using a dull knife, open the mussels, working over a large bowl to catch their liquid. Set aside the open mussels.
  3. Add the bread crumbs, eggs, tuna, Pecorino Romano, and parsley to the bowl with the mussel liquid. Mix well to combine. The mixture should be wet but not runny; add a bit of water if needed. Season with salt and pepper. (The ingredients are already quite savory, so you may not need any salt.)
  4. Using your hands, place about a tablespoon of the bread crumb mixture in each open mussel, gently closing the mussel around the filling but allowing some of the filling to spill over.
  5. Arrange the filled mussels evenly inside a large baking dish.
  6. In a small bowl, combine the tomatoes, 2 to 3 tablespoons water, and the olive oil. Season with salt and toss to coat.
  7. Distribute the tomatoes evenly around the mussels.
  8. Bake until the filling is browned and the tomatoes are softened, 20 to 25 minutes.
  9. Switch the oven to broil and broil for 5 minutes to get a light golden crust on the bread crumb filling. Serve at room temperature.

You can buy Katie Parla’s book Food of the Italian South: Recipes for Classic, Disappearing, and Lost Dishes below.

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