Good croutons are like little nuggets of gold, carbohydrate contraband hidden amongst leafy greens and good-for-you veggies. How often, though, have you had fresh croutons or, better yet, made them yourself?
Fresh croutons is actually a bit of a misnomer as the best bread for croutons is bread that’s been around a little bit. Just like French Toast, using day-old or slightly stale bread works because it slurps up moisture that much better. Any sturdy bread will do and you can decide to keep the crusts intact or trim them off.
Cube your bread into 1-inch or so pieces and heat a dry skillet on medium to medium-high. Toss the bread around the skillet for a while, letting it brown on the edges if you want, before drizzling with a good olive oil. Continue to stir or toss the bread around, being careful not to let it burn, adding more oil if there are several cubes left untouched. Sprinkle in some kosher salt, pepper and whatever other seasonings you like just before turning the croutons out of the pan (I’m partial to garlic powder and parsley, myself).
Homemade croutons don’t last very long in my house–whatever doesn’t get used on top of a salad or soup usually gets nibbled away in short order–but you can certainly place any leftovers into a plastic bag or storage container. They will keep for quite a while on the counter but I wouldn’t make them in too big a batch because the oil can turn on you and make the croutons taste ‘off’.
Anyone familiar with Classic French cuisine (a la Escoffier) or just French Onion Soup will be familiar with the larger crouton that is popular as a base or topping for many foods. A slice of baguette, done on the bias, is best for this application, and is treated much the same as the cubed croutons with maybe a bit less tossing involved. Whether floated on top of a rich soup and topped with soon-to-be-melted cheese or as a foundation for shredded beef in sauce or even tuna a la king, a fresh crouton of this nature adds a nice texture to an otherwise smooth dish and a hint of richness from the olive oil.
Now, I know most crouton applications are savory but I like to try and come up with alternatives. You can certainly use butter (clarified is best to avoid burning) for your croutons so why not season them with a bit of cinnamon and sugar and top them with berries and a bit of freshly whipped cream as a dessert? Instead of the cinnamon, what about a bit of nutmeg or even a pinch of cardamom to top a rich rice pudding?
What other interesting ways can you think of to use a good, homemade crouton?