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The Spanish kitchen makes broad and continuous use of stale bread. To my knowledge this is something almost completely alien to the North American kitchen, and I think worth sharing.
The principle obstacle to integrating stale bread into American culinary practice is that in general the bread available in the U.S. is different and, if you'll pardon my saying so, largely pretty lousy unless you're investing in a six-dollar gourmet loaf, in which case you probably won't let any of it get stale. Here in Madrid I buy an 80-cent loaf every morning at the bakery downstairs, and usually in the course of the day use about two thirds of it. The remaining chunk can be left to get stale.
Migas are perhaps the apotheosis of old bread. The name literally means "crumbs," and that's pretty much what it is.
The second obstacle is some combination of elements--I'm not sure what it is--that makes U.S.-made bread get moldy before it gets properly stale. Initially I chalked this up to the climate, but even in the winter here when its rainy and humid for months I have never seen bread get soggy or moldy if left sitting out on the counter. It just dries out. I assume this means that most U.S.-made bread has preservatives that defer staleness and thus condemn it to moldiness or at least to sponginess. If anyone has more information on this point I'd be grateful.
[Curator's note: It's the too-fast yeast and preservatives U.S. breadmakers use. The hyperactive yeasts make bread go stale almost instantly, and the preservatives mean bread stays spongy and awful right until it turns moldy. Much of southern Europe--Tuscany and on down in Italy; all of Greece--has a tradition of using stale bread, I'd bet because the dry climate discourages mold. I wrote a column on one of the most famous of these, the Tuscan bread, tomato, and cucumber salad panzanella--make it before the hard frosts! And I mentioned there a book worth seeking out, Gwenyth Bassetti's Cooking With Artisan Bread, which largely focused on the tradition of cooking with stale bread. She knew, having started one of the country's most successful artisan bakeries, Grand Central in Seattle and Portland.]
There is also a certain psychological obstacle. Since the great hygiene campaigns of the 1950s at the dawn of our hyper-consumerist age, most Americans have a deeply ingrained aversion to letting foodstuffs get old or stale. In Spain, land of cured meats, aged cheeses, and stale bread, that's not an issue.
The fact is that in any kitchen in Spain you will find a basket of old bread, which is later destined to all kinds of uses. It serves to thicken sauces and give consistency to soups, both hot ones like sopa castellana and cold ones like gazpacho. Soaked in a little water it becomes the base for dips and spreads like salmorejo, and soaked in milk it becomes the base for torrijas or bread pudding. Why buy breadcrumbs when you can just grate a chunk of old bread? Why buy croutons when you can fry up little chunks of old bread? And then there are several traditional dishes in which old bread is the star of the show. Fresh bread won't work for these dishes; it has to be stale.
Migas are perhaps the apotheosis of old bread. The name literally means "crumbs," and that's pretty much what it is. This is humble food, food of poor shepherds in the dry hills of Extremadura, food which in Madrid is remembered with a mixture of rue and nostalgia as the hardscrabble fare of the hungry years after the Civil War. In those years it gave new life to the stale butt of bread, the last rind of ham, whatever fragments of chorizo or panceta might found. Of course what goes around comes around, and the generation which has grown up in the abundance of the last 30 years is rediscovering the charm of their grandparents' survival rations. Migas now appear on the menu of chic tapas bars all over the country. There are thousands of variations, but here's the basic idea:
• 500g of stale white bread (the denser and more uniform the texture of the bread, the better)
• Olive oil
• 6 to 8 cloves of garlic
• One small Spanish chorizo or chistorra
• Two thick strips of bacon
• Pimentón (Spanish paprika: sweet or hot)
Before making the migas, cut the bread up into little pieces a bit smaller than dice. If it crumbles as you cut it that's okay. Spread the pieces in a large dish, and sprinkle lightly with salted water until slightly damp but not wet. Cover the dish with a cotton cloth and let rest for at least a couple of hours, or overnight if possible.
Cut the chorizo and bacon into strips, and peel the garlic but leave the heads whole. Pour olive oil into a pan until about a centimeter deep. Fry the garlic cloves and remove them before they brown, then fry the chorizo and bacon until they too are almost but not quite browned, and remove. Dump the damp bread into the hot oil, then turn down the flame to low. Stir the migas with a wooden spoon so that the bread absorbs the grease evenly. As you stir, add the garlic, bacon and chorizo, as well as a half a teaspoon of pimentón. Continue stirring over a low flame for 15 minutes or so until the bread is cooked through and loosely crumbly.
Traditionally this hearty, greasy delight is eaten with a spoon straight from the pan, and accompanied by either a fried egg or a fried green pepper. To cut the grease it is often served with a small bowl of either grapes or melon.
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