I was asked to come up with a recipe for a 'no food waste' campaign and the Sicilian classic, Spaghetti con la Mollica - Spaghetti with Fresh Breadcrumbs - popped instantly into my head. This recipe wasn't far from my head anyway, as I had just finished re-reading Matthew Fort's book about eating his way around Sicily, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons.
I started reading this book again recently when I remembered it was the very same book I was reading when I first visited Sardinia over 10 years ago. Obviously I hadn't been able to find any Sardinian-based literature ( I can't have looked very far) so I'd picked this up instead. I remember one thing that struck me about it, apart from the vivid descriptions of numerous Sicilian specialities, was Fort's depiction of some of the Agriturismos he stayed in. I'd never heard of an Agriturismo before this, and I was intrigued. A farm where they took in guests and fed them a simple meal of whatever they were growing or harvesting at that time. It sounded right up my street. I instantly suggested that we go and find one (I was staying with a friend and her family at the time). So, they humoured me, and we did. We found one, and we ate one of the meals which will forever be stuck in my mind like a stubborn sesame seed between the teeth; a meal of incredible humility, simplicity and goodness. Artichokes dressed with home-made olive oil, ricotta ravioli in a simple tomato sauce (both ricotta and pasta made on the farm), then roast suckling pig and a sweet, cheese-stuffed ravioli doused in honey to finish. It was one of the best and simplest meals I had ever eaten in my life, and my first real introduction to Italian home cooking.
Picking up this book again, I was reminded not only of how much I want to visit Sicily, but also of some of the similarities between Sicilian and Sardinian cooking. Both cuisines follow the Italian tradition of 'cucina povera', a cooking born of necessity and frugality. One of the dishes which caught my attention particularly was this spaghetti with breadcrumbs, which are often known in Sicily as 'poor man's cheese'.
Though the origins of this dish may be poor (the ingredients are certainly not expensive) eating it feels very far from sufferance. The combination of golden, garlicky crumbs, grounded by the savouriness of anchovies, given a kick by garlic and chilli, and then finally lifted by a little lemon zest, is an intense and hedonistic experience. Like all the best Italian food, it is satisfying and simple, both humble and humbling.
Most importantly, it is a reminder that one man's 'waste' can be another man's treasure. These garlicky fried crumbs are truly that: kitchen treasure. Make double the quantity and sprinkle them on salads, or other pasta dishes, or even in sandwiches (I made a tuna panini with these crumbs, fresh tomato and mayo and it was pretty mind-blowing).
After eating this, you will never discard a crust of old bread again.
Serves 2 as a main course
200g of spaghetti
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and bashed with the back of a knife
50g bread (best with sourdough/ciabatta or focaccia) blitzed in a food processor to form crumbs
3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
6 anchovy fillets
Zest and juice of 1 small lemon
A good pinch of dried chilli flakes
Bring a pan of well salted water to the boil and drop in your spaghetti.
Meanwhile heat half the oil in a heavy saucepan with the bashed garlic. Drop in the crumbs and fry, stirring continuously over a medium heat until golden all over (about five minutes).
Remove the garlic clove and discard it, and scrape out the crumbs, leaving them to drain a little on a piece of kitchen paper. Wipe out the pan and add the second batch of oil. Fry the sliced garlic for a minute until lightly golden. Add the anchovies and stir them well until they melt. Remove from the heat, add the chilli, lemon zest and juice, and chopped parsley.
When the spaghetti is cooked (usually aim for 2 minutes less than the packet instructions) drain it, reserving a small cup of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti into the pan with the sauce and place it back over the heat. Add a good splash of the cooking water and toss the pasta until you get a good amount of shining sauce. If it looks dry, add a little more oil and more of the cooking water. Taste for seasoning. I usually don't add salt as the anchovies are already salty, and if the pasta water was well-salted it's unlikely that you'll need it, but it's worth checking.
Plate the pasta and sprinkle over the garlic crumbs. Finish with an extra drizzle of oil, if you like. Have a large glass of wine and marvel at life.