What the heck is bread pesto, you might wonder? Well, most importantly, it’s a down-right delicious, easy-to-make topping for all kinds of dishes. It’s also one of a host of genius ideas for a thrifty kitchen that we garnered in a chat with Queensland chef Nick Holloway.
“I have no secrets. I have no secrets whatsoever,” says Holloway, when we ask if a bread and parmesan sprinkle he uses on the menu at his Palm Cove restaurant, Nu Nu, is a closely guarded secret.
As you can imagine, we did the mental equivalent of rubbing our hands with glee, and set about picking his brains.
“The corner stone of really great cooking is resourcefulness,” says Holloway, who did his early kitchen years with leading Melbourne chefs Geoff Lindsay at Stella and Pearl, and Andrew Blake at Blakes, before heading north to open Nu Nu in 2004.
“The goal is the restaurant, every single day, has always been to one, to buy things in as little packaging as possible. Two, use as much of the product as you possibly can so the kitchen bins are empty. Three, make food that is so delicious that the customers have to eat every single skerrick off the plate, and there's nothing to be scraped [in the bin],” Holloway says.
“So, we if can finish a day in the kitchen – we start here at five in the morning, not all of us, but some of us, and the kitchen is open until twelve o'clock at night – If we can have an empty bin at the end of all that, we feel very, very satisfied.”
The team does “all the obvious kitchen things, all the classic, stocks and sauces,” he says. But Holloway has plenty of other great ideas for using up leftover bits and pieces in unexpected ways, from that bread pesto and the bread and parmesan sprinkle to dried sourdough starter and a sticky, sweet-sour flavour-packed use for ginger trimmings.
Make ‘bread pesto’
We spotted this idea in the first episode of Tropical Gourmet Queensland, when Holloway takes the host of the new show (catch double episodes Monday nights at 7.30pm, and on SBS On Demand), Justine Schofield, on a tour of the huge local produce market, Rusty’s, and then cooks with her in the Nu Nu gardens.
“I made it up on the day!,” says Holloway of the persimmon, mozzarella and bread pesto salad he puts together, inspired by persimmons bought at the market.
“It's like when I was growing up. My mum always said, ‘You go to the veggie patch. You see what's there. And then you go hit the cookbooks rather than trying to put the cart before the horse’," he tells Schofield in the show.
Holloway’s bread pesto is not so much a recipe as a very flexible idea. Start by heating up some oil – he uses olive oil in the show, as the dish he makes also uses some olives and he likes the idea of complementing the flavour, but says walnut oil or an oil without a lot of flavour, like grapeseed oil, would both also work, depending on what you’re planning to serve the pesto with. Tear stale bread into large chunks and drop it into the pan, along with some sage or other flavourings, and cook until it’s getting toasty and crunchy. Then use a mortar and pestle to grind the bread with a little sherry vinegar and some dried olives (as per the version in the show), or nuts such as macadamias, cashews or pecans, toasted in a dry pan to release some of their natural oils and add to the flavour. Add a little more oil if necessary.
Keep a little chunkiness in the dressing: “I think it's crucial when making a dressing like that to consider the texture. If it's too fine, it becomes completely emulsified, and then you don’t get the complete flavours, it’s all homogenised into one thing.” Aim for the pleasure of “crumbly and textural”, he says.
Use the bread pesto on a salad, like the one in the show, or use it to top bruschetta, fish, or anything that needs a little punch.
Turn sourdough starter into a seasoning
If you make bread at home with a sourdough starter, you’ll know the quandary of what to do with excess starter when you’re firing it up again after a hiatus. Holloway has been making sourdough at restaurants for decades, but these days he’s really enjoying making it at home too, and he’s taken to drying and roasting the starter, then using it as a seasoning, when he has too much. It’s an idea he got from “a really awesome book” call The Sourdough Kitchen, by baking teacher Vanessa Kimbell.
Turn ginger bits into a savoury caramel
This is what Holloway calls the sticky, delicious sauce used in a pork dish on the menu at Nu Nu, and in a very similar dish he cooks with Schofield in episode 5 of Tropical Gourmet Queensland.
“Ginger trimmings we turn into a ginger caramel,” Holloway explains when we ask him about the recipe. “So, we boil white sugar and then just let that go caramel. We put all the ginger juice off the chopping board and all the ginger scraps and shavings in. And then just add some vinegar and some soy. Or some fish sauce.”
It’s a great sauce to use with small pieces of pork belly left over from other dishes, he says.
“Put the pork into that. And then use whatever fruits and stuff are in season to make a beautiful, textural sort of salad.” (Watch Nick make this salad in Tropical Gourmet Queensland, and get the recipe here).
Use parmesan and stale bread to make a versatile sprinkle
“Any truly leftover bread, when there's no more we can really do with it - it's too stale even for croutons or something - we would grind it up in a big food processor, with leftover Parmesan rind, and any lemon zest kicking around, and some salt,” Holloway says. “Grind it into a fine-ish crumb [a little smaller than coarse rock salt, Holloway says later], and then just toast it in the oven at 150 degrees, until it is completely dried and golden. That will last in an airtight container for a few days.”
“It's a fantastic garnish. You can sprinkle it over fish, over cooked meat, over salad.” It also appears as a garnish on Nu Nu’s take on avocado on toast.
“We put squid ink in it sometimes, too. Or we play with different breads that we've got leftover. Olive bread, or rye bread. Even fruit bread,” Holloway says.
Save seafood scraps for a stand-by sauce
“Any leftover scraps or bits of seafood, we dry and then blend into a paste used to make the base of all our XO sauce. So, that might be squid trimmings, or leftover older crab … or leftover bits of prawn and fish trimmings,” Holloway says. Using up bits like this in sauces that can sit in the fridge “pays forward in volumes”, he says. You can not only cut down on your waste, but give yourself lots of options for cooking delicious dishes down the track.
“You look in the fridge and there's a tub of XO sauce kicking around and you're like, ‘oh, that's a good idea. I could use that on something that is fresh’, spanking new and fresh on any given day.
“That combination of old flavors and new flavors, brand new, super fresh, just picked, with something that might have been sitting in the cool room for a year as a pickle or a relish or a sauce, I think it gives the cuisine so much more depth, and character, and diversity.”
Give anything a go
As well as the abundance of Asian and European ingredients on offer at the market, which Holloway visits every week, the Nu Nu kitchen’s creativity rides on a steady stream of produce from local farmers, producers and home gardeners. In the week we chatted to him, he’d had people bring in Malabar chestnuts, palm hearts and several different honeys, sourced from hives at different sites along the coast.
“The cooks hate me at first, but by the time they leave here, they love the idea of it. We just take whatever there is, and then we figure it out. So, I have long standing arrangements with farmers who I have zero ordering control over. They just bring me boxes of stuff. It's our jobs, as cooks, to convert that raw produce into something delicious, and some level of preservation for what we can't sell straight away … smoke, ferment, grind up, dry, dehydrate. There's a million ways you can store things.”
It doesn’t always work – but that’s a good thing, he says.
“You know, you've got to burn something to know when something burns. And you've got to season a bit too heavily to realise you're seasoning too heavily. And I think that that's hugely important thing to understand, as you progress as a cook through your life. All of us are still learning and dancing, and finding new things to discover and enjoy.”
Quick pickling is a great way to use up any vegetables in the fridge at the end of the week, as well as those leftover vegie stems – cauliflower, beetroot, broccoli and kale stems all make really delicious pickles!