I can see you now, puzzled by that word – mollica. That is, unless you are either Italian or know the language. Mollica are simply breadcrumbs. They are working basics in most kitchens, rarely taking centre stage. But, in Sicilian cuisine, where they are called muddica in the local dialect, breadcrumbs really shine.
Mary Taylor Simeti in her wonderful book on Sicilian food, Pomp and Sustenance (simply retitled as Sicilian Food for the paperback and kindle editions), provides a good explanation of the use of breadcrumbs in Sicilian cooking. Many recipes in her book use breadcrumbs – to thicken sauces, to bulk out meatballs, to fill a variety of involtini (roulades – stuffed rolled meats, fish or vegetables), to make a crunchy crust on fried food like the famous Sicilian arancini, or simply toasted to scatter on top of pasta or fresh grilled fish. The significance of breadcrumbs is born from what Simeti calls pious frugality where bread is treated with reverent respect. She mentions the prayers said at each stage as the bread is made and eventually slipped into the oven, the crossing of the loaf before the knife touches and the first slice is cut, and the superstition that a loaf must never be placed upside down on the table. In fact, each and every breadcrumb has value.
It is no wonder that breadcrumbs feature in religious festivals. Pasta made on San Giuseppe (St. Joseph) saint’s day (March 19th) is sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs representing sawdust, symbolic of Joseph as a humble carpenter. A Sicilian folk-superstition mentioned by Simeti (and Giorgio Locatelli in Made in Sicily) also illustrates the significance of breadcrumbs. If you drop even a single crumb, there is a place reserved in purgatory where you are doomed to pick up breadcrumbs with your eyelashes for hundreds of years. I don’t recall this punishment appearing in Dante, but it is inventive enough to have been included in his famous allegorical poem, the Divine Comedy. A harsh penalty to pay considering how easily those crumbs escape onto the floor, down cracks, under appliances…. At least it isn’t the Inferno.
With all of that it mind, I was pleasantly surprised when reading Aglaia Kremezi’s newest book, Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts where she refers to the Sicilian condiment, Conza. The basic condiment is made up of toasted breadcrumbs, almonds and parsley that is sprinkled on pasta, fish and vegetables. However, any number of other seasonings can be added. Indeed, Kremezi offers recipes for a few of her own variations – with olives or capers. She also tells a charming story of her introduction to this versitile condiment by the late Marcella Hazan, mentioning even more seasoning combinations. Above all, she exhorts us all to experiment with flavours – as she says, the possibilities are endless.
As all of you who read my blog know, I am a great admirer of Aglaia Kremezi’s earlier book, The Mediterranean Pantry, so having another recipe of her condiments was a boon. However, that word, conza, puzzled me. It nowhere featured in my Sicilian cookbooks, nor could it be found in an Italian dictionary. However, a Sicilian friend tells me that the word conza means condiment in the Sicilian dialect, derived from the Sicilian verb conzare or cunzare (Italian condire), which is used as a culinary term meaning to season. Interestingly, although perhaps not directly connected, the term conza de piati in the Venetian dialect also means condiment, although its root lies in words that mean preserve, pickle or tan. It is my friend’s thought that the Sicilian word conza may be used in recipes when the toasted breadcrumbs are seasoned with other ingredients. Otherwise, they are simply muddica/mollica. Or, as Celia @ Fig Jam & Lime Cordial reminded me, it can be called pangritata, also translated simply as breadcrumbs.
Basic Sicilian Mollica “Conza” (with variations)
The ingredient proportions and the recipe procedure have been modified slightly from the one found in Kremezi’s book. I’ve increased the amount of breadcrumbs and decreased the amount of almonds, making this more economical without affecting the taste as the flavour imparted by a few toasted almonds goes a long way. After all, it is considered to be the “poor man’s” substitute for Parmesan.
- 200g breadcrumbs (see note below)
- 2 Tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil
- 50g chopped almonds
- 3 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 2 to 3 chopped dried hot chillies (pepperonici)- optional
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Add the oil to a large frying pan and heat on low – not hot enough to burn. Add the breadcrumbs and the chopped almonds (they should be small pieces, but not too fine). Toast the crumbs until they begin to brown, continually stiring and turning them over, making sure that the oil is distributed throughout. Once they are beginning to turn golden brown, add the finely chopped parsley as well as the optional chilli flakes and continue on the heat for another minute. Make sure the parsley is completely dry before adding. The heating process will further dry the parsley flakes. Turn off the heat and let the seasoned crumbs cool in the pan. Once cool, remove and add the salt.
This makes enough for several uses. Store it in an air-tight container up to 4 weeks and use when required. In order to refresh the crumbs, if they become soft, simply spread on a baking tray and heat at a low temperature in the oven until they are crunchy again.
* use different types of bread – whole wheat, multi-grain, rye, white
* for a gluten-free (GF) version, substitute the bread for rolled oats (as advised by Aglaia Kremezi), GF cornbread or other GF “breads”
* infuse the oil with a few anchovies (these “dissolve” in warmed oil) or garlic (slices sautéed until golden and then removed) or use pre-infused olive oils such as my paprika oil (as in the recipe below)
* substitute the sea salt for a smoked or infused salt such as my sale aromatica or Sandra’s (Please Pass the Recipe) olive salt
* add different herbs such as rosemary or thyme in addition to or in place of the parsley
* add hot pepper flakes for a bit of heat
* add finely chopped citrus zest
* substitute different nuts or seeds for the almonds
* hard grated cheeses (such as Parmesan) can be added, but only just before serving as it will not store well
Be inventive like Aglaia Kremezi – experiment with flavours you enjoy. I fully intend to try a variation she mentions of ground dried porcini with rosemary infused in the breadcrumbs (yum!). But, I will carry on testing my own combinations. I have discovered the key to a successful conza – one that keeps its crispness – is to use dry ingredients. Below is one example from the results (so far) of my experiments.
Paprika and Pumpkin Seed Conza
Inspired by my recent cooking from Paula Wofert’s The Food of Morocco. This is excellent on grilled vegetables like butternut squash (or carrots), or as a topping for baked macaroni and cheese. The quantity is sufficient for one dish.
- 50g whole wheat or spelt breadcrumbs (sourdough, if possible)
- 2 teaspoons paprika oil
- 15g chopped pumpkin seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
- a pinch of sea salt
First lightly toast the cumin seeds in a warm, dry frying pan. Crush them in a mortar, but do not completely pulverise. Add the paprika oil to the frying pan on low heat. Add the breadcrumbs and the chopped pumpkin seeds. Toast these until they begin to brown, continually stiring and turning the crumbs over. Once they are beginning to brown, add the crushed cumin seeds and continue on the heat for another minute. Turn off the heat and let the seasoned crumbs cool in the pan. Once cool, remove and add the salt.