Now obviously, I’m not referring to the over-priced, under-flavored commercial brands. Or the little dry cubes of ho-hum that you encounter at your average salad bar. But custom-made beauties, incorporating artisan breads and flavorful cheeses, along with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and garlic, and a drizzling of butter or olive oil? Well, they’re capable of taking your soups and salads to a whole new level of delicious.
And yet, how often do you involve them in your salad and soup construction?
One of the most decadent croutons I ever encountered was at the Carson Peak Inn on June Lake, south of Mamouth Lake on the east side of the Sierras. My pals and I would end up there after a full day of hiking the high country. First thing the waiter would do is return to the table with a small bowl of their house croutons, basically, chunks of sourdough bread deep-fat fried to the color of a Sierra sunrise. Like tossing a chunk of raw meat into a den full of tiger cubs, those tasty morsels were gone in moments. But it was a bottomless bowl, because those amazing chunks of bread complimented so many elements of our meal, from appetizer, to soup, to salad.
My basic homemade croutons are not deep-fat fried, of course. But they are heavily dosed with a garlicky, zesty butter before they hit the roast cycle in my oven where they’ll achieve that same gorgeous blush of a Sierra sunrise.
Once you’re on board with making your own croutons, you’ll suddenly become aware of all the potential ingredients that can come into play. First of all, consider the vast array of breads to work with. Each one, be it a classic French, sourdough, English muffin, ciabatta, olive or rosemary, is going to produce a uniquely flavored and textured crouton. And even though I’m sure that the crouton concept began with one frugal cook faced with a whole lot of stale bread, it’s perfectly fine to use a fresh loaf. In fact, I highly recommend it, because the resulting croutons will be inherently more tender at their center.
The trick is to use bread with substantial structure. A light-textured bread doesn’t hold up under salad conditions; it gets too soggy too quickly. And avoid pre-sliced breads, because most of them are sliced too thin to produce a decent crouton
Whether or not you trim away the crust is up to you. There’s a lot of flavor to be had in the crust, but it will brown faster, so you’ve got to keep an eye on things.
The shape of your croutons is also up to you. The classic French crouton is sliced from a day-old baguette and is used to float on top of a soup or sit below a juicy piece of meat. Americans are more used to cubes. Which is fine. Just don’t make them too uniform. As for size, 1-inch is an average dimension, but smaller is OK, too, although if you go much below half-inch then its easy to overcook them. And I like a little tenderness in the center, which really shouts “homemade!”
With a cache of homemade croutons in the freezer, you’ll find yourself reaching for them to jazz up dishes beyond simple tossed green salads and soups: Crumble them over cooked vegetables for a toasty finish; incorporate them into stuffings; and layer with cheese and eggs for a most extravagantly flavored strata.
Jan’s house croutons
Makes 1 quart of croutons
These zesty-garlicky wonders are easy to make and complement a vast range of salads and soups. They freeze fabulously, so when you have the time, just make up a big batch and toss ‘em in the freezer for future hits. Use these croutons to jazz up a tossed green salad or simple soup.
1 loaf of a good quality artisan bread, such as ciabata, olive, Italian or French
1/2 cup (1 cube) butter
4 to 6 large cloves minced or pressed fresh garlic
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco or your favorite hot pepper sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cut a portion of the bread into enough 1-inch (or slightly smaller) cubes to measure 1 quart. Place the cubes of bread in a large bowl.
Melt the butter with the garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Tabasco and salt. Slowly drizzle the melted butter over the cubes of bread, tossing the cubes in the bowl so that they all get a dose of the seasoned butter. Spread the cubes out evenly on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until richly golden. Remove from oven and cool. Store unused croutons in a plastic container for several days, or freeze for up to 3 or 4 months.
Variations abound: Sprinkle on a bit of Parmesan cheese...outstanding! I’ve used different forms of bread and gotten terrific results, including sourdough English muffins, baguettes, asiago cheese bread, rye bread, and roasted garlic bread. The trick is to make sure that whatever bread you use has substantial texture. A light-textured bread doesn’t hold up under salad conditions; it gets too soggy too quickly.
Caesar Salad with Jan’s House Croutons
Makes 8 servings.
If you want a dynamite Caesar salad remember to use only the very crisp and tender center portions (the heart) of the romaine lettuce. This means that for a salad serving more than 4 people, you’ll have to buy 2 or more heads. Reserve the dark green outer leaves for another night’s meal.
4 large heads of romaine lettuce (or 4 “Hearts of Romaine”)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Caesar Salad Dressing (recipe follows)
Jan’s House Croutons (see previous recipe)
1 cup freshly shaved (somewhere between coarsely shredded and grated) Parmesan cheese
Wash the lettuce leaves, dry them thoroughly, then break into 2- to 3-inch long pieces. Place them in a bowl and cover with damp paper towels and return to the refrigerator to chill.
When ready to serve, add the lettuce leaves to a large salad bowl and sprinkle them generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss with most of the dressing. Add the Parmesan and fresh croutons and toss until all the lettuce and croutons are evenly coated, adding more dressing if necessary.
Caesar salad dressing
Bring a fresh egg to room temperature for about 15 minutes, then place it in a small bowl. Pour boiling hot water over the egg and allow it to stand for 90 seconds in the hot water (this is called “coddling”). Drain the water off the egg, then crack it into a bowl and combine with
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice,
1 tablespoon of minced fresh garlic,
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard,
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce,
several dashes of Tabasco
Whisk until well blended, then whisk 1 to 2 teaspoons of anchovy puree (or 1 smashed anchovy fillet) into the mixture. Slowly whisk in 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. The dressing may be prepared several hours ahead and refrigerated (Whisk well before using).
Spinach salad with 5-minute egg and Parmesan croutons
This salad is beautiful to behold. Emerald green leaves of spinach, with toasty-golden brown croutons and a stark white egg. When the diner cuts into the ivory white egg, its rich yellow yolk gently flows out over the crunchy croutons and salad. Heavenly!
One cautionary note: Because the egg is not thoroughly cooked, there is a very small risk of salmonella, so the USDA advises against serving them to anyone with a compromised immune system, pregnant women, and small children.
6 eggs, at room temperature
1 pound fresh spinach, washed, dried and tough stems removed, broken into bite-sized pieces
1 cup pitted black olives
3 strips crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
Tarragon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Jan’s House Croutons (see previous recipe)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Gently place eggs into a pan of simmering water and cook for exactly 5 minutes (do not let the water stop simmering). Remove from heat, drain carefully (don’t crack eggs), then fill the pan with cold water and let the eggs cool completely. When cold, gently peel the eggs.
Place the spinach leaves in a large salad bowl, along with the olives and bacon. Toss with some of the vinaigrette, then arrange on six dinner plates. Place a handful of the croutons in the center of each salad. Lay each of the eggs on top of the croutons, then drizzle on a small amount of vinaigrette over each egg and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve. Yields 6 servings.
Note: To make sure you end up with beautifully peeled eggs, avoid just-purchased eggs. If eggs are extremely fresh, the white usually sticks to the shell when peeled.
In a small bowl, combine
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard,
3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar,
2 tablespoons good-quality mayonnaise,
1/2 teaspoon salt,
1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon,
1/8 teaspoon powdered savory
1/8 teaspoon white pepper; blend well with wire whisk.
Add 3/4 cup oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until the dressing is thick and blended. Adjust seasonings and set the dressing aside. If you’re making the dressing ahead of time, refrigerate it.
Makes 1 1/4 cups dressing.
Almost-a-Reuben soup with Swiss-on-rye croutons
Makes 6 servings
All the components of a Reuben sandwich, from the Swiss cheese and Russian dressing to the sauerkraut and rye bread in a bowl of soup. I’ve opted for pastrami over corned beef because it’s a little spicier, with a subtle smokiness that works well in the soup. But if you’ve got some leftover corned beef this month, don’t hesitate to use it instead!
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 to 4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups beef broth
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups sauerkraut, drained and rinsed
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 cups (14 to 16 ounces) chopped pastrami (see note)
1/4 cup butter, softened
6 1/2-inch thick (or slightly thicker) slices good quality Rye bread
Russian Dressing (recipe follows)
2 cups shredded Jarlsburg cheese
Over medium heat, in a large heavy-bottomed pan, saute the onion and garlic in the butter until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the beef and chicken broth, Worcestershire sauce, pepper flakes, potatoes, and sauerkraut. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the pastrami and continue simmering, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 15 additional minutes.
While the soup is simmering, prepare the Swiss-On-Rye Croutons: butter one side of each slice of bread with some of the butter. Place the slices, buttered side up, on a baking sheet and broil until well toasted and golden brown. Turn over the slices and butter the untoasted side with some more butter, then return to the oven and broil until lightly golden brown. Remove from oven. Trim the croutons so each one will fit within the diameter of the oven-proof soup bowls you are serving the soup in.
When ready to serve, ladle a generous portion of the soup in each oven-proof soup bowl. Spread about 1 tablespoon of the Russian Dressing on each crouton and place it on top of the soup. Layer a generous amount of the shredded cheese over the crouton and surface of the soup, then arrange all of the bowls on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese has melted and turned a light golden brown. Serve immediately.
Note on pastrami: Even though a traditional Reuben sandwich uses corned beef, I prefer using pastrami in this soup, because it imparts a spicier and smokier flavor. If you prefer to use corned beef, that’s perfectly OK. When purchasing pastrami at the deli counter, have them slice it 1/2-inch thick (I usually end up with 4 slices measuring 1/2-inch thick). To prepare for the soup, chop each 1/2-inch slice into 1/4-inch pieces (don’t be precise; it looks better in the soup if the pastrami pieces are irregular in size and shape).
In a small bowl, whisk together
3/4 cup good quality mayonnaise,
1/3 cup chili sauce (similar to ketchup, only spicier),
2 tablespoons sour cream,
3 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onion,
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic dill pickle,
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice,
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish (not cream-style),
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Refrigerate until ready to use. May be made up to 7 days ahead.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
Creamy tomato soup with brown butter garlic croutons
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon dried basil (or 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 scant tablespoon fresh)
1/2 teaspoon thyme (or 1 scant tablespoon fresh)
5 cloves finely minced fresh garlic
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 28-ounce cans whole, peeled tomatoes
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ cup marscapone cheese
½ cup freshly grated Havarti cheese
1/4 cup butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups of bread cubes (preferably a cheese bread, such as asiago, cut into 3/4-inch cubes)
Additional mascarpone for garnish
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, saute the onion in the olive oil and butter over medium-low heat until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in the salt, pepper, basil, oregano, thyme, and garlic, and continue to cook another minute or so. Add the tomato paste, spreading it out in the pan with a spatula, so that it can brown slightly in the pan (to produce some wonderful flavor).
Stir in the tomatoes and broth, and cook at a slow simmer, covered, for an hour. Every now and then, as the whole tomatoes soften and dissolve, poke and flatten them.
While the soup is cooking, prepare the croutons: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the butter over medium heat and gently saute the garlic until the butter begins to brown; remove from heat. Place the bread cubes in a large bowl and pour the garlic butter mixture over them, tossing to coat the cubes thoroughly. Spread the cubes on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes; remove from oven and set aside.
When the tomato mixture has cooked, remove the pot from the heat and let the mixture cool slightly. Blend the soup either in the pot with a hand-held blender, or in batches in an blender or food processor. Continue heating the soup over low heat. Stir in the mascarpone and Havarti, stirring until completely melted. Adjust the seasonings, adding salt and pepper if necessary.
To serve, ladle a generous portion into each soup bowl, then garnish with a dollop of mascarpone and handful of croutons.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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