GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

August 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall

PANZANELLA IS PERFECT FOR SUMMER

Summer is the perfect time to enjoy Panzanella! Of course, first you have to know what it is! Panzanella is known in English as Tuscan Bread Salad. Essentially, it's leftover bread coupled with the absolute freshest, most flavorful and colorful tomatoes, and some other yummy ingredients. If leftover, slightly stale bread doesn't excite you, please trust me that these flavors will awaken your taste buds. Tuscan cuisine is known for its simplicity, so each ingredient must contribute something. Make sure all of the ingredients are top quality (including the bread, even though it is leftover or stale; use a sturdy peasant style bread for best results). The Tuscans are also known for their frugality, and I applaud their use of leftover bread to create this magnificent salad. This recipe (and the variations below) can serve two as a first course, and can easily be doubled or tripled.

Place the torn bread pieces in a bowl; drizzle with the water and toss; allow the moist bread to sit for about 30 minutes. After the bread has absorbed the water and sat for 30 minutes, squeeze the bread in handfuls over the remaining bread in the bowl to remove any excess water and to distribute the water to other parts of the bread; there won't be much excess water, so don't try too hard, and be sure to fluff the bread after you've squeezed it, and put it in a fresh bowl large enough to allow all of the ingredients; discard any remaining water. To the fluffed bread, add the tomatoes, onion, ¼ t salt and ¼ t ground pepper (just grind it onto the salad ingredients). Stir to combine, and set aside to allow the tomato juices to soak into the bread. Prepare the dressing by combining the remaining ingredients in a small bowl and mixing with a fork or whisk (a fork is easier to clean). Drizzle the mixed dressing over the salad, gently stirring as you drizzle to make sure the dressing touches each piece of bread. Serve immediately, or chill for 30 minutes, covered.

Variations:

Bread: As I've stated, it is best to use a coarse-crumbed, rustic, peasant-style bread like Italian, sourdough, or "true" French bread (lots of poorly made French bread has a fine crumb that doesn't suit this salad); if the bread is slightly chewy, that's terrific! The important point is to tear the bread; do not cube it, and do not toast it as some recipes suggest (you can do these things, but it won't be traditional Panzanella).

Tomatoes: You can use any tomatoes, as long as they are fully ripe, in-season, and preferably local (if they've been transported any distance, they weren't picked ripe, and so their flavor will be less-than-desirable). Use the usual red tomatoes, or use multicolored cherry or grape tomatoes, or use my favorite, a variety of heirloom tomatoes that will add flavor and color to the finished salad.

Onion: You can use any onion for this recipe, knowing that different onions have different characteristics. Yellow onions are sharp, white onions are less sharp, and red onions are relatively gentle; I like to use red onions for their color and flavor. You can also use truly mild onions like Vidalia and Maui, but they won't be as attractive as the red onions. You can also use slivered shallots and scallions for a different flavor and effect. I have also made this recipe with roasted garlic (use half as much roasted garlic as the recipe calls for onions); I don't recommend raw garlic, and I think elephant garlic is just too boring for anything.

Vinegar: I usually encourage experimenting with other vinegars or citrus juice, and you can do this, but red wine vinegar will really give the best flavor experience (cider vinegar will work on a pinch). Even balsamico, which goes so well with tomatoes, isn't the best choice for this recipe, but it will work (Tuscans would never think of putting balsamico tradizionale on this salad, and they would abhor the use of balsamico industriale).

Herbs: You can add any amount of torn basil, mint, arugula or other leafy herb (if using a fine-leaved herb like oregano, use 1 T maximum). I'd use about ½ cup loosely-packed herbs, prior to tearing, for this recipe. Many traditional recipes call for basil, but this recipe tastes so good without it, I've only suggested adding basil and other herbs as albeit delicious variations. Please note that once again I'm suggesting using arugula as an herb that has a special affinity for tomatoes, as I wrote about a year ago at http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesAugust04.html.

Other Vegetables: Some traditional recipes for Panzanella call for cucumbers; I think they are unnecessary, but if you want to add ½ c to 1 c thinly sliced or ½" cubed cucumbers, go for it. Another interesting addition is roasted, boiled or pickled beets, thinly sliced or cut in ½" cubes; realize this is not traditional, but still delicious (and beautiful, if you use yellow or chioggia, or the more common purple, beets). You could even finely chop some prepared giardinera (Italian pickled vegetables [peppers, cauliflower, carrots, maybe celery, etc.], available jarred in groceries, or in delis). Sometimes olives or roasted bell peppers might be added, being aware that they are non-traditional (though again, delicious).

Fatoush: Panzanella is really quite similar to the Lebanese bread salad, Fatoush. The differences include using toasted pita for the bread (and the pita is kept crisp in this salad), adding mandatory cucumber slices or cubes, possibly bell peppers and radishes, and including garlic, mint leaves and the spice z'atar (ground sumac); lemon juice usually replaces the vinegar. I'm not going to include an actual recipe for Fatoush, as I am in no position to contribute anything original to this delicious Middle Eastern salad. Google "Fatoush" to get a recipe; it's an easy variation on Panzanella that you can tackle if you wish to acquire the specialty ingredients.

Applications:

This salad is meant to be served on its own as a first course. However, there's no reason you can't use it as a side dish or a bed for grilled, pan-fried or roasted meats, poultry or fish, or poached fish (a great thing to do in summer, especially when the fish is chilled prior to adding to the salad) to create an entree. Shredded or sliced fried or poached chicken is a good addition to turn this salad into a satisfying lunch. You can try adding other ingredients as well: smoked meats/poultry/fish, shavings of parmesan or other hard cheese, crumbles of feta or fresh goat cheese or even bleu cheese … FYI, cheese never appears in traditional Panzanella, but you can do it anyway.

NOW is the time to make Panzanella, when the tomatoes are at their peak ripeness. Don't wait. If your bread isn't stale, use it anyway, as long as it has a good crumb. Please, let me know how you like this recipe by calling me at 773.508.9208 or email me. And please let me know about any new variations you create. Enjoy the summer bounty! Be grateful for the harvest!

 

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