Panko is a Japanese breadcrumb that's gained a well-deserved reputation with Western cooks. Coarsely ground with a shard-like structure, panko resists compression, giving fried foods a crunchy, airy crust. Panko browns beautifully, but absorbs less grease than conventional breadings, and resists becoming leaden or soggy.

The Japanese first learned to make bread from the Portuguese; the word "panko" is derived from pan (Portuguese for "bread") and ko, Japanese for "crumb" or "powder." Panko-fried foods stay crisp when cooled.

Panko makes an outstanding breading for shrimp or fish, where its lightness rivals that of tempura. But it's quickly becoming an all-purpose favorite, used as a binder in crab cakes and meatloaf, and as a crunchy topping for casseroles.

Generally made from crust-less white bread, panko is pale in color and relatively tasteless. But its blandness is seen as a virtue, since its composition allows it to readily absorb added seasonings. Try blending panko with lemon zest and chopped fresh dill as a breading for fish fillets. Many recipes use a three-stage breading process -- lightly dusting meat in flour, dipping in egg wash, and finishing with panko, pressing to coat. Another tip: Panko may adhere best when allowed to set up briefly in the refrigerator.

> Red Snapper with Mango Salsa

Mango Salsa:

1 lime, juice and finely grated rind

2 tablespoons pineapple juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 large ripe mangoes, peeled and diced

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 small jalapeno chili, seeded and diced

1/4 cup diced red onion

1 tablespoon chopped parsley or cilantro

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup diced red bell pepper

Macadamia-Crusted Fish:

4 (6-ounce) fresh red snapper fillets (or other firm white fish)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 ounces macadamia nuts

3/4 cup panko crumbs

2 eggs

2 teaspoons water

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

To prepare salsa, combine lime juice, rind, pineapple juice and oil in a medium bowl; whisk. Add remaining salsa ingredients; stir well. Set aside.

To prepare fish, sprinkle fillets with salt. Place macadamia nuts and panko in the bowl of a food processor; process until nuts are finely ground. Place mixture in a shallow dish. Place eggs and water in a shallow bowl; whisk well. Sprinkle flour over a sheet of wax paper. Dredge fish in flour; dip in egg mixture; dredge in macadamia mixture, pressing gently to make crumbs adhere.

Melt butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish; reduce heat to medium, and cook about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Serve with salsa. Serves 4.

(Recipe by Greg Patent.)

Per serving: 620 calories, 27g fat, 44g prot., 49g carbs., 4g fiber, 900mg sodium.