Needed: One mentor

Or better titled “how I ruined Poor man’s Parmesan”.  One thing hugely missing in my life is a mentor who can show me how to cook in the traditional Italian ways. The dictionary tells me that a mentor is “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher”.  Without one of these, ususally a nonna (Italian grandma) or mother to help me learn the traditional ways, I am on my own. My dad taught me all he could while he was alive but now that he is gone, I don’t have anyone. Maybe someone is out there and I just need to start asking around. Who knows! At this point, I am taking it all in stride and learning from my failures.

My hubby wants me to let everyone know that he takes some of the blame for this ugly mess:

It might have been a combination of factors that led to this semi-disasterous food-like substance. I had the wrong oil to breadcrumb ratio, the heat was too low then too high, and I have the wrong pan altogether. Ah, 14 inch stainless steel skillet why must you be out of my reach when I need you most? I need to buy one of those soon. But first let’s address the ratio business.

I read on Michael Ruhlman’s blog how he learned about ratios and the important role they play in cooking. Cooking is all about the math, who knew?  He wrote an entire book, called RatioThe Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, dedicated to the art of math in cooking and what ratio means to recipes and outcomes. I am going to purchase this book as soon as I get more free Amazon gift cards through Swagbucks.

Commercial break- I earn those gift cards by searching through Swagbucks and earning their free “bucks” which I then redeem for gift cards. Since August, I have earned over $100 dollars in gift cards to Amazon and it doesn’t cost a thing. Contact me if you want more info.

Back to your blog reading pleasure now. So I need to get the ratio correct for one. Second, I need to learn the fine art of toasting breadcrumbs in olive oil and what heat to use. In hindsight through more searching, I learned that one must keep stirring the breadcrumbs over a medium heat for about 5 minutes to achieve the toasted effect. I sure hope that is correct information. I will try this recipe, if you can call it that, again if for nothing else but to succeed. I am challenged!

So here is the recipe I used, loosely based on some basic research. Please don’t use this recipe as the ratios are wrong, I believe. I want others to learn from my mistakes as well.

Poor Man’s Parmesan


1/2lb pasta of your choice- I used fresh made

5 cloves garlic/sliced

1 tsp crushed red pepper

1/2c-3/4c seasoned bread crumbs- I ended up with over 1 whole cup

1/4c olive oil

Heat oil in skillet, add garlic and pepper, cook 2 min. It looked good at this point.

 Add bread crumbs and cook until toasted.Again, at first it looked good.

 Obviously we toasted too long and ended up with this mess!

We did eat it. After toasting the breadcrumbs add cooked pasta and small amount of pasta water or oil. Actually we added quite a bit of water and olive oil since it was slightly burnt. Serve with small amount of shredded Parmesan cheese.

Here is the finished product, plated, with the sausage and peppers we made(recipe follows).

 It really didn’t taste that bad but it’s really not what we were shooting for in this experiment. Stay tuned for the journey to create this dish again. I’ll tell you one thing, if this is cucina povera cooking, my family would starve because I can’t even do a simple toasting of breadcrumbs!

I am reaching out to you experienced cooks for help. What or where did I go wrong? Are my observations correct? I need a mentor, pronto!

Sausage, peppers and shallots

1 pound mild Italian sausage-links

1/2 red pepper sliced

1/2 green pepper sliced

2 med. shallots sliced

Simmer sausage 10 minutes in water, remove lid to allow water to evaporate after 5 minutes or so. Drain off most of the water and add a little olive oil, veggies and cook till veggies get crisp-tender.This took about 7-8 minutes.

 Make sure the sausage registers 155 degrees inside. Slice and serve with Poor Man’s Parmesan, if you dare!


9 thoughts on “Needed: One mentor

  1. Michelle,

    Kudo’s to you for keeping on going and sharing your mistakes !! We all learn by trial and error, the secret is not to give up. So I want to encourage you that you are doing a wonderful job. And who knows, a mentor will show up for you, it will make it even more fun. Take care. :)

  2. Michelle – three phrases. Heavy pan, low heat, and feel it. The science of memorized rations won’t always save you. But you *must* start with good tools. All the cookbooks in the world will not move a level of cooking past the level of quality of the pan, or knife. If you have a good pan and a good knife, you are on your way. If not, you will stumble repeatedly. You need only a few good tools in the kitchen and not a lot of gadgets. Save any $ spent on gadgets (and/or cookbooks) till you have the few good tools you need.

    Low heat, with breadcrumbs, always.

    ‘Feel it’. This is how nonna cooked. She felt it. You can, too. Trust your senses.

    Good luck on the next try! :)

  3. Karen, thanks for weighing in. Now do you recommend a certain pan? Stainless steel? Non-stick? At least I know that I was headed in the right direction with the pan issue. So maybe I will be saving those cards for the right pan. I have a cast iron skillet but it’s old and not the best quality. Thanks again for the encouraging words.

  4. Non-stick: absolutely not. I’d get your cast-iron pan up to speed again. Season it properly and don’t ever let any soap get anywhere near it. If it gets really mucky then get it really hot and pour boiling water into it. This will lift any cooked-on solids and clean it up a bit. Rinse with super-hot water and then re-season (remember to use animal dripping, not vegetable oils).

    As regards breadcrumbs, especially with fine ones like the ones that you have in that picture, slow and steady is the best way forward, or you’ll end up burning them. Keep them moving, and don’t use too much oil or they’ll end up deep-fried rather than nicely toasted.

  5. Michelle,

    The best toasted breadcrumbs are made with cubed day old Italian or French bread whirled in a food processor or blender until not too fine. From the picture, it looks like you used the crumbs from a can. After making the crumbs, combine them with just enough oil to moisten and then start to brown in a skillet pre-heated on low. Keep stiring until the crumbs are toasty and golden. Use the remaining oil to saute the garlic and then combine the two. But rather then slicing the garlic, I would grate it on a microplane. That way no one will be biting into a hunk of garlic. You say you want a stainless steel pan but I would rather use my heavy Paula Deene teflon. It’s wonderful. Stainless has too many hot spots for delicate sauteing jobs if you ask me. Cast iron is great for certain jobs like frying bacon and potatoes, and putting a crust on roasts and chops before braising and stewing, but it takes a long time to heat up and cool down so the temperature is harder to control.

    As stated previously, you only NEED a few good tools but a few good gadgets can make life so much easier. I use my Cusinart food processor all them time, even if it is for chopping only one onion, because I always have it on my counter. That’s the secret. I also love my Oster breadmaker. Oh, it bakes terrible bread but it makes wonderful dough without any kneading, and kneading is the hard part. I just shape it or put in in a pan, let raise, and bake in the oven. There you have it, home BAKED bread.

    Keep up the good work and don’t worry about your mistakes, Michelle. They are all learing experiences, and learn you will, because you have the desire and the will, and that’s all it takes. By the way, have you seen “Julie and Julia.” What a wonderful movie!

  6. Ah, I hear you, Michelle. I need a mentor for Itailan cooking, too. P’s mom passed away years ago and we both like to experiment with recipes and ingredients. You might not always get it right, but it will always be fun!

    In bocca al lupo!

  7. Aunt Chuckie, I did use pre-made breadcrumbs, though fresh, from a business. I am seeing that I need to make my own though. I also like a few gadgets in my kitchen and just got a few. I just need a few new pans so I will be trying to purchase those in the coming months.

    I don’t mean to sound so down on this experience, I did have fun and I did learn a lot of lessons. It’s ok for me to have mishaps because that is how we all learn. I am excited to share the good, the bad and the ugly since in the end we all learn.

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