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Everyone knows about using bread crumbs for coating a schnitzel or any other fried, baked or broiled thing. Or stuffing a bird or whole fish. Or scattering across the top of a gratin or tian before browning. I've even used them as toppings for fruit desserts, like a less-sweet version of a crisp.

But what I'd never really realized was the true potential of bread crumbs, how instead of being bland character actors toiling in the background, they can become the stars of a dish, or at least a very impressive second lead.

Top steamed or braised vegetables with some carefully toasted bread crumbs and the dish is transformed by the infusion of crunch and that golden brown flavor.

Scatter them in a salad and they work like micro-croutons.

One of my favorite recent bread crumb dishes was also the simplest: Toast bread crumbs, boil spaghetti, chop arugula. Mix well. Utterly delicious.

Bread crumbs are so easy to make. The most important thing is starting with fresh bread. Neither dried crumbs nor panko worked as well in these kinds of dishes.

Take some fresh bread, slice away the crusts, cut the interior into a rough dice and then grind it in the food processor. A 1-pound loaf will usually make 3 to 4 cups of bread crumbs. Any crumbs you don't use can be tightly sealed in a plastic bag and frozen for later.

Don't chop the bread too fine and don't worry about making the crumbs uniform. Put the bread crumbs and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan with just enough oil to moisten them -- 3/4 cup of bread crumbs will take 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of oil. Don't use too much or the crumbs will be greasy.

Toast the bread crumbs over medium-high heat, stirring almost constantly. At first, you'll just be mixing the oil and the bread crumbs. Then you'll notice that the crumbs begin to firm and crisp and darken slightly. They're still not ready. Keep going until they definitely change color. (What color? Toast!)

Immediately remove the bread crumbs from the heat, give another couple of stirs and then transfer them to a bowl to cool.

> GRILLED ROMAINE WITH RADISHES, HARD-BOILED EGGS AND TOASTED BREAD CRUMBS

Dressing:

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

5 teaspoons Champagne vinegar

1/2 cup oil

1 teaspoon salt

Salad:

3 heads romaine, hearts only

1 bunch radishes (about 13 to 15 small)

2 hard-boiled eggs

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 teaspoons olive oil

Salt

For the dressing:

Combine the shallots, lemon juice, vinegar, oil and salt in a small, lidded container and shake well to mix. Taste and add more lemon juice if necessary; the mixture should be very bright. Set aside.

For the salad:

Trim the dry bases from the romaine and quarter each head lengthwise. Slice the radishes as thinly as possible. Separate the white and yolk of the eggs; finely chop the white and press the yolk through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.

Combine the bread crumbs in a small saucepan with the olive oil. Stir to coat well; there should be only a light trace of oil in the bottom of the pan. Season with a pinch of salt and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs have darkened and toasted, about 5 minutes. Transfer them to a small bowl and set them aside to cool slightly.

When almost ready to serve, add 1 tablespoon chopped egg white to the dressing and shake well to mix again.

Grill the romaine on a stove-top grill pan over high heat, cooking just long enough to sear, 1 to 2 minutes to a side.

As each batch comes off the grill pan, arrange it on a platter, season lightly with salt and spoon a generous tablespoon or so of dressing over the top. Repeat until all the romaine has been cooked and added to the platter.

Distribute the thinly sliced radishes over the top. Scatter over the egg whites and then the egg yolks. Spoon over a little more of the salad dressing, scatter over the toasted bread crumbs and serve.

Serves 6.

Each serving: 260 calories; 6 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 62 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 446 mg sodium.

> SPAGHETTI WITH ARUGULA AND GARLIC BREAD CRUMBS

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

1 clove garlic, split in half lengthwise

Olive oil

Salt

1 pound spaghetti

1/2 cup finely chopped arugula

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Combine the bread crumbs in a small saucepan with the garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir to coat well; there should be only a light trace of oil in the bottom of the pan. Season with a pinch of salt and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs have darkened and toasted, about 5 minutes. Transfer them to a small bowl and set them aside to cool slightly. When cool, discard garlic.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of liberally salted, rapidly boiling water. When it is tender but still slightly chewy, drain it and combine it in a mixing bowl with 2 tablespoons olive oil and the chopped arugula. Add 5 tablespoons toasted bread crumbs and toss to coat well.

Divide among 4 to 6 shallow pasta bowls. Sprinkle with the remaining bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

Each of 6 servings: 370 calories; 10 grams protein; 58 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 48 mg sodium.

> SWISS CHARD WITH GOLDEN RAISINS AND LEMON BREAD CRUMBS

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 pound Swiss chard

1 onion

Olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped lemon zest, divided

Pinch crushed red pepper

Salt

3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with warm water to soften.

Clean the chard: Separate the stems from the leaves and cut the stems into 1-inch segments. Shred the leaves, then wash them well and keep them in a bowl with the water that clings to them.

Cut the onion in half and then into thin half-moon slices. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions. Cook until they soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, an additional minute or two.

Add the cut-up stems, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, red pepper and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the stems are quite tender, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the stems are cooking, toast the bread crumbs. Combine them in a small saucepan with the remaining one-half teaspoon lemon zest and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir to coat well; there should be only a light trace of oil in the bottom of the pan. Season with a pinch of salt and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs have darkened and toasted, about 5 minutes. Transfer them to a small bowl and set them aside to cool slightly.

When the stems are quite tender, add the shredded leaves, with the water that clings to them, and the golden raisins. Season with another teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the leaves are wilted and very tender, about 5 minutes. Season generously with black pepper and stir in lemon juice. Taste and add more salt if necessary. There should be only a little moisture left in the bottom of the pan; if there is more, drain it.

If you're going to serve the chard as a main course, divide it among 4 shallow pasta bowls and sprinkle each with about 2 teaspoons of toasted bread crumbs. If serving as a side dish, transfer the chard to a platter or a shallow serving bowl and sprinkle about one-half cup of bread crumbs over top. Pass additional bread crumbs at the table.

Serves 4 as main course; 6 as side dish.

Each of 6 servings: 175 calories; 2 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 9 grams sugar; 580 mg sodium.