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  • Custom-made croutons add a splash

  • A crouton by any other name? How about delightful bites of awesomeness? Toasty islands of sublime? Crunchy cooks' surprise?
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  • A crouton by any other name? How about delightful bites of awesomeness? Toasty islands of sublime? Crunchy cooks' surprise?
    Now obviously, I'm not referring to the overpriced, underflavored commercial brands that you encounter on your average salad bar. Custom-made beauties incorporate artisan breads and flavorful cheeses, along with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and garlic with a drizzling of butter or olive oil. They're capable of taking your soups and salads to a whole new level of delicious.
    And yet, how often do you involve them in your salad and soup construction?
    One of the most decadent croutons I ever encountered was at the Carson Peak Inn on June Lake, south of Mammoth Lake on the east side of the Sierras. My pals and I would end up there after a full day of hiking the high country.
    First thing the waiter would do is return to the table with a small bowl of their house crouton: basically, chunks of sourdough bread deep-fat-fried to the color of a Sierra sunrise. Like tossing a chunk of raw meat into a den full of tiger cubs, those tasty morsels were gone in moments. But it was a bottomless bowl because those amazing chunks of bread complemented so many elements of our meal, from appetizer, to soup, to salad.
    My basic homemade croutons are not deep-fat-fried, of course. But they are heavily doused with a garlicky, zesty butter before they head into the oven where they'll achieve that same gorgeous blush of a Sierra sunrise.
    Once you're on board with making your own croutons, you'll suddenly become aware of all the potential ingredients that can come into play. First of all, consider the vast array of breads to work with. Each one, be it a classic French, sourdough, English muffin, ciabatta, olive or rosemary, is going to produce a uniquely flavored and textured crouton. And even though I'm sure the crouton concept began with one frugal cook facing a whole lot of stale bread, it's perfectly legal to use a fresh loaf. In fact, I highly recommend it because the resulting croutons will be inherently more tender at their centers.
    The trick is to use bread with substantial texture. A light-textured bread doesn't hold up under salad conditions; it gets too soggy too quickly. And avoid presliced breads because most are sliced too thin to produce a decent crouton
    Whether or not you trim away the crust is up to you. There's a lot of flavor to be had in the crust, but it will brown faster, so you've got to keep an eye on the oven.
    The shape of your croutons also is up to you. The classic French crouton is sliced from a day-old baguette and is used to float on top of a soup or sit below a juicy piece of meat. Americans are more used to cube-shaped croutons. Which is fine. Just don't make them too uniform — keep the edges a bit ragged. As for size, 1 inch is an average dimension, but smaller is OK, too. Although if you go much below 1/2 inch, it's easy to overcook them (and I like a little tenderness in the center, which really shouts out "homemade!").
    With a cache of homemade croutons in the freezer, you'll find yourself reaching for them to jazz up dishes beyond simple tossed, green salads and soups. Crumble them over cooked vegetables for a toasty finish; incorporate them into stuffings; and layer with cheese and eggs for a most extravagantly flavored strata.
    Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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