Italians, if you're reading this, turn away, lest I become the next feature on "Italians mad about food." But the other day, I put shrimp chips—the fried mixture of flour, ground shrimp, salt, and MSG that you'll find at Asian grocery stores—on cacio e pepe-esque noodles, and I will absolutely do it again.
This was not a depression meal or a desperation meal, or whatever is the exact midpoint of the two that we've all come to know as the weeks of isolation go on. Instead, it was decadent: I crumbled the shrimp chips, fried them in a pool of butter, and sprinkled them onto miso butter noodles followed by a dense shower of grated parm. The result was perfect.
The cheapest way to quickly improve your pasta is with pasta water, which turns sauce silky and smooth. But the best way to quickly improve your pasta is by putting crunchy stuff on top, because it makes any dish noticeably more delightful to eat. Finishing your pasta with cheese is good; a heap of buttery, crunchy topping and cheese, if you have it, is even better.
The obvious entry point into the category is breadcrumbs fried in olive oil, a practice that emerged as a cheap alternative for Italians who couldn't afford cheese, according to Epicurious. Though carb on carb is one of those things that might not immediately make sense—it's a bizarre toast sandwich-esque idea—you'll quickly realize that, as with cassoulet, those peasants were onto something. Pasta is cheap and so are breadcrumbs, but when you put them together, it feels suddenly indulgent, like you're really giving yourself a treat.
Add garlic, chile flakes, or even anchovies as you fry your breadcrumbs, and even the most basic buttered noodles suddenly feel like something you could buy at a cool natural wine joint. It's by no means a new idea that breadcrumbs turn any pantry pasta into a star, and putting chips or crackers on mac and cheese is pretty common.
But what the forced flexibility of quarantine cooking has helped me accept is that the limits of the crunchy pasta topping truly don't exist. Chips, chile crisp, furikake, and even crumbled pork rinds all now fall in my purview of acceptable pasta accompaniments, and though these ideas were no doubt the result of needing to make do, I fully intend to bring this practice into my non-quarantine life, whenever it returns.
All those additions make sense from a practical level. Pasta with sauce is great, but sometimes it needs a final something to really set it off. If the purpose of breadcrumbs on pasta is to add texture and flavor, then all of the additions I've messed with recently also fit that category, but with their own useful benefits, too. Pesto can get cloying—but not when you add just a bit of flavorful topping to cut through its flavor. For example, a kale pesto topped with chile crisp:
As mentioned, furikake—which I also put on the miso butter pasta—is a Japanese seasoning often used on rice. The version I'm partial to has a blend of seaweed, dried fish, and sesame seeds, and it adds an intense umami flavor in the same way that bottarga, an Italian delicacy of cured fish roe, might; that said, I can actually get furikake at my closest grocery store, and it's cheap.
Chile crisp adds spiciness, from the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn varieties to milder ones with a warming heat. The jar I'm working on from Trader Joe's isn't very hot, but it is very crunchy due to a mix of toasted garlic and onions. Chips, meanwhile, come in a basically endless selection of flavors, which means adding all sorts of fun variety to your meal. And pork rinds are salty, smoky, and extremely varied in texture; there's a company that makes "pork panko" and I can't wait to try it on pasta.
Here are a few MUNCHIES recipes that turn breadcrumbs into the most delightful part of a pasta dish. But remember, quarantine cooking is all about making the most with what you've got, so if all you've got is a bag of potato chips, use that instead. Don't judge yourself; just enjoy it.