Above: One of my panzanella salads. This one has cucumber and white beans in there too.
About this time of year, gardeners (and their lucky friends) are becoming awash in lovely ripe tomatoes. And once you’ve made multiple salsas and pasta sauces, and your freezer is full, well, it’s time to put a little panzanella into your life.
Panzanella is best described as a tomato-bread salad, originating in Italy. (I’ve also seen it called Tuscan bread salad.) “Bread salad” may sound a little strange, but I can assure you that it’s delicious — and a cooling change of pace, especially in hot weather.
To make panzanella, you need good, sturdy bread, preferably a bit stale. Italian or French or country white bread are all good choices. You can probably find a suitable loaf on the day-old rack at your local bakery or grocery store. If not, you can slice or tear a fresh loaf into chunks or cubes, leave it out for a few hours to stale a bit, and then use it. (I’ve even toasted my bread chunks to get them dry in a hurry.) If the bread is a bit dry, it won’t get overly soggy as it soaks up the tomato juices.
You’ll also need two or three large, juicy-ripe tomatoes; about three tablespoons each of olive oil and vinegar (I like red-wine or balsamic); about a quarter-cup of thinly sliced red onion; a clove or two of garlic, chopped or put through a press or microplane grater; and some fresh basil would be nice. (If you only have dried basil, it will work too. But really, you should have some fresh basil on hand! It’s summertime in California!)
Here’s how to make it: Cut or tear about half your loaf of bread into bite-size chunks or cubes. Put them in a large salad bowl. (Some people moisten the bread with water beforehand, then squeeze it out and proceed. Others drizzle the cubes with olive oil and bake them, cooling them before adding to the salad. I prefer the simpler method of letting my tomatoes do the moistening.)
Cut the tomatoes into chunks and pour them and all their juices over the bread. Add the olive oil and vinegar (or use a bottled Italian dressing), the onions and the basil — about a half-dozen shredded leaves if you have fresh, a half-teaspoon of dried if you don’t — mix it all up, and add salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste.
You can let your panzanella sit at room temperature if you’ll be eating it within an hour or so; otherwise, refrigerate it until serving, especially if you’ve added meat and cheese to it.
What I like about panzanella is that it takes so well to leftovers and improvisation. Don’t have red onion? Use white ones, or sliced green onions. Can’t live without chopped celery? Go ahead and add it. How about those leftover beans from the other night? Sure, toss them in, along with some black or green olives. If you prefer the taste of fresh thyme or parsley to basil, go for it.
Other foods that play well in panzanella:
— Diced ham, salami, Canadian bacon, or regular cooked crumbled bacon;
— Diced cheese, like mozzarella or provolone;
— More vegetables, like radishes, artichoke hearts, bell peppers, garbanzo beans, green beans, shredded carrots, fresh peas, cooked edamame.
Using about a half-loaf of bread should give you three to four side-dish servings, or two large dinner-size servings. Leftovers make a nice lunch on top of a bed of lettuce the next day. (And you’ll have turned your bread salad into a salad salad!)
When you’re ready to serve the panzanella, the bread chunks should be nicely chewy and moist. If they seem dry, add a tomato, or more dressing.
This just in (to my brain, that is): I bet you could create a Mexican-flavored panzanella by using cilantro instead of basil, a chopped jalapeno pepper, black beans instead of white, and about a half-cup of canned (or fresh) corn. Add cubed Monterey jack cheese or your favorite Mexican cheese, and sprinkle with a few crushed tortilla chips.
Or even Greek-style: Lemon juice instead of vinegar, plus black olives and chunked peeled cucumber; canned tuna instead of ham or salami; feta cheese; and flavor with oregano instead of basil.
That’s the beauty of panzanella. There’s no one way to make it, and it can be different every time, depending on how you feel and what’s in the fridge. What a perfect summertime dish! Enjoy!
P.S. Got variations? Share them in the comments, please!
(c) Copyright Laura Groch 2013