Nothing finishes off a bowl of pasta like grated parmesan or pecorino — unless you’re vegan. Good vegan hard cheeses are probably out there somewhere, but I have yet to find a brand or recipe that comes close to the real thing. Instead of going broke betting my dinner on one failed contender after another, I gave up and started putting fried breadcrumbs on my pasta instead.
This is by no means an innovative technique. Southern Italians have been putting seasoned breadcrumbs on their pasta for so long that they have a word for it: Pangrattato. A sprinkling of crisp, toasty pangrattato enhances the textures and flavours of pretty much any pasta dish, and it’s way cheaper than a wedge of parmesan, vegan or otherwise. You’d never mistake breadcrumbs for hard cheese, but you’re not really supposed to. But both cheese and seasoned breadcrumbs are salty and delicious, with enough texture to contrast with the pasta — what more do you need?
My go-to pangrattato situation is basically garlic bread in breadcrumb form: Light, crispy panko fried in olive oil with granulated garlic, Cavender’s seasoning (which is just garlic salt, oregano, and black pepper), and fresh herbs. It’s savoury, crunchy, and just a little bit greasy, with a few pops of green for balance. I think it’s the ideal pasta condiment. To make it, you will need:
- 2 tablespoons — 1/4 cup olive oil (depending on how much richness you’re going for)
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, preferably panko
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
- Cavender’s All-Purpose Greek seasoning, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh green herbs, usually a mixture of parsley and scallions
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-low, add the breadcrumbs and dry seasonings, and stir constantly until golden brown and toasty. Remove from heat and stir in the fresh herbs. That’s it. (You can store any leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 or 3 days; just reheat in a dry skillet on low heat to crisp them back up.)
This garlic bread-adjacent flavour profile pairs perfectly with any Italian or Italian-American dish, even if it’s just spaghetti with jarred marinara. But don’t limit yourself to pasta: I recently made the Smitten Kitchen Pizza Beans with a thick layer of pangrattato instead of mozzarella, and honestly, I think I liked it more. It’s a different dish without the cheese, but the combination of red sauce, butter beans, and crunchy, garlicky, salty breadcrumbs is every bit as satisfying in its own way.
Feel free to mess around with the seasonings to suit your tastes — that’s half the fun. Crushed red pepper flakes are always welcome, and if you’re craving a more authentically cheesy flavour, toss in some nutritional yeast, or even a bit of miso paste. You won’t end up with a parmesan or pecorino clone, but you will find an endlessly versatile new pasta topping, and that’s just as valuable.