Last Night a Breadcrumb Saved My Life {pasta with shrimp}

The humble breadcrumb. Oftentimes relegated to the third in a three-step breading process or the tie that binds a meatloaf. Until recently, I had no idea a breadcrumb could affect me so deeply. Even breaking down the compound word lends itself to an underwhelming ingredient: bread and crumb. How uninspiring. How banal.

Well, my friends. Not anymore. When is a breadcrumb not just a breadcrumb? When it is a homemade buttery topping for a delicious pasta dish. The inspiration from dinner came from a meal at No. 246 in Decatur, a great little reasonably priced and delicious restaurant in my favorite Atlanta hood. We had been once before and sat at the chef’s counter (their take on a chef’s table but with less pretension and bar stools!) but on this trip we were the masters of our own domain, able to order at will. And order we did. We ate the most delicious and unnaturally buttery shrimp pasta and as I am wont to do, upon craving it last week while answering phones at the NPR fund drive at 6:40 in the morning, I decided to recreate it at home.

Texturally speaking, shrimp pasta doesn’t necessarily do it for me. But the breadcrumbs… the damn breadcrumbs elevate this dish into something surprising. And I feel like I should have thought of it before, what with the proliferation of breadcrumb topping on things like macaroni and cheese and the fact that I top pasta with things like crispy bacon (recipe forthcoming). But I didn’t and now it’s time to make up for those lost years.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1/2 lb. 30-count shrimp
  • 1 cup bread, torn into large pieces
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1/2 lb. linguine
  • 1/8 cup white wine

First things first, let’s make these breadcrumbs. I took about a 4″ hunk of a fresh baguette and imagine that if you were to veer into sandwich bread territory that things wouldn’t be quite the same. You can definitely use a day-old (or older) baguette if you find one lying around your kitchen/locker/roadside. Tear the bread into smaller pieces and place in a mini-prep or other food processor and give it a whir until they resemble panko.

My second cousin, Carolyn, taught me how to make croutons for her delicious broccoli casserole (we need another family reunion if only so I can eat her broccoli casserole soon) and I took that lesson and applied it to my breadcrumbs. Melt two tablespoons butter in a small saucepan and add your bread. Toss to coat and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook over medium low heat, stirring hither and thither, for about 20-25 minutes until the bread has magically become simultaneously dry and full of butter.

While those are cooking, you can prep the rest of your business. Peel and devein the shrimps and chop/mince/dice your way to happiness where the garlic and parsley is concerned.

The rest of the meal comes together quickly. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil so you can cook your pasta. If you’re done with it before the shrimp is ready, no big deal. Remember to reserve a bit of pasta cooking water so you can loosen things up later when you combine everything.

Melt the remaining butter in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for about 30 seconds.

Throw your shrimp in the pan and give them a good toss. When they’ve been well-coated in the butter, grab your wine glass and part with a healthy splash.

Now it’s time to throw in the pasta and the parsley and a little cooking water if need be. Cover the dish and cook for a minute – just enough time to bring all the flavors together without overcooking the shrimp. Shrimp this size need only about 2-3 minutes in a pan before they turn into little pink rubber parentheses.

Finally – the breadcrumbs. The star of the dish (I never thought I’d say that). Plate up the pasta and finish with a healthy handful of the toasty topping.

I think I’m going to make this again soon. Maybe not this week, maybe not next week, but soon, and for the rest of my life. Also – I will now be topping most things with breadcrumbs. And making broccoli casserole. This is going to be a good week.