LET THEM EAT…BREAD?
Marie Antoinette had no clue about Panzanella Salad when she sarcastically suggested that the commoners should eat cake when times got tough. If she had – French history might have been quite different, and she would still have her head. The ordinary folk would surely have been more than satisfied with such a recommendation. In fact, they would have been thrilled with this Tuscan favorite.
Panzanella, also called Panmolle, is the quintessential summer salad, and there is no better time to talk about it than right now while the local markets and our gardens are brilliant with fresh, vividly colorful vegetables. This is delicious, easy to make, very healthy, very economical, and lasts for days. Where’s the problem here? This is guaranteed to get your motor runnin’ ! (not a bad choice for the waistline either)
A little history: Panzanella Salad dates back to the 16th century when the Italian poet, Bronzino, not to be confused with the fish, waxed of onions and cucumbers with oil and vinegar and toast in his writing. As late as the 20th century, the poet’s list of ingredients was the general description of the salad. It was then, in the 1900’s, that tomatoes were introduced and lived happily ever after in the hearts of Tuscans when they thought of Panzanella.
The Ingrediente Speciale: The very special ingredient that sets this apart from any other salad is the use of a crusty country bread, preferably Tuscan, which is first soaked. Wet bread you say?? Si, paesane e paesani! You betcha! –no, not until it is slimy and falls apart. The bread is soaked lightly, and then you squeeze the water out. The Tuscans have done this for centuries – and they haven’t been wrong yet. Trust me on this one. It makes an incredibly delicious and satisfying salad – one that can even be used as a light main course. In fact, this is often the way we have it on hot summer nights at our house – on the patio – of course! Add a lovely chilled white wine and you are all set.
More About The Bread Thing: All those years ago in Binghamton, NY, it was not unusual for my mother, Loretta, when preparing a soup or stew or vegetable dish to stretch it a little by putting a thick slice of crusty bread on the bottom of the dish which soaked up all the goodness of the ingredients and added heartiness to our meal. It was also, not unusual for her to do the same with salad. Good things just never get old.
My Little Secret: As usual, I have a little twist that I like to make on the bread. (Shhhh! It’s just between you and me.) Most recipes call for using stale bread and soaking that. You can use stale bread, day old bread if you like. Instead of just soaking my bread, I like to brush it with olive oil and toast it in the oven til golden for a few minutes…and THEN soak it. It makes a difference in both flavor and consistency.
The Tuscan Way: Tuscans are persnickety about the ingredients for their dishes. They don’t like to wander too far off the piazza when they prepare their special dishes.The expected choices for a typical Tuscan preparation of this Panzanella Salad are onion, tomato, fresh basil, Tuscan Bread, salt, pepper, wine vinegar, and olive oil. However, it is not uncommon to find a very good one with other ingredients invited to come along for the ride. For instance, I like my salad with a few extras that you will see below which, I think, offer flavor, color, and interest to this wonderful old standard.
Another way: For instance, it is not unlikely to find this salad prepared with shrimp and cuttlefish in Livorno with its proximity to the sea. It is my opinion that the Livornese would put seafood in anything if given the opportunity. And why not? One really delicious introduction that I often make is to add grilled sliced rare tuna. The tuna grilled with a little olive oil, Kosher Salt, and fresh pepper is a great way to serve Panzanella when you want just a little something more.
Let’s get this little beauty to the table!
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Serves: 4 as main course
Serves: 8 as a side dish
Prep: About 40 minutes + a couple of hours to chill
12 oz. Crusty Tuscan Loaf or Country Loaf of Bread – sliced in approx. 1 inch slices
Olive Oil for brushing the bread slices
4-5 Fresh Ripe Red Medium Sized Tomatoes cut into quarters or 3 cups Baby or Grape Tomatoes
1 Cucumber – peeled, seeded, chopped into cubes
One Medium Purple Onion – sliced thinly
1 Fennel Bulb Sliced (See this post for instructions: how to slice fennel)
2 Tbsp. Capers, rinsed and drained
1 C. Whole Pitted Kalamata Olives
Handful of Fresh Basil – cut Chiffonade style
2 Tbsp Red Wine Vinegar for soaking liquid
1 1/2 – 2 cups Water for soaking bread
Brush bread slices on both sides with olive oil.
Place bread slices on a baking sheet and Bake in 350 degree oven for 15 min. Turn slices over and bake about 10 min. more. The idea here is to toast the bread to a little golden color on each side.
Add red wine vinegar to the water for soaking.
Place toasted bread slices in bowl and pour vinegar and water over the bread. Let stand 1-2 minutes only – moving the bread around so that it soaks evenly.
Immediately, take bread out of bowl and squeeze water out of each piece. Tear the bread slices into chunks and lay out on paper towels – set aside.
Cut vegetables as listed and place them in a large bowl with the capers and olives– toss gently with clean hands. Add the Basil.
Add soaked bread pieces to the bowl with the vegetables – toss gently with clean hands.
Make dressing with ingredients below, and add to salad and toss again with clean hands.
Using your hands makes for less needed tossing action and does a better and gentler job than a spoon.
Important: Put the salad in the refrigerator to chill for several hours or overnight. This is necessary to let the flavors blend properly. You can add more basil before serving if you like.
Whisk the following ingredients together:
1/2 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Red Wine Vinegar
1 Tbsp.White Balsamic Vinegar
1 tsp. Orange Juice
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
This Panzanella Salad lasts for a few days in the refrigerator which is great if you want to make it ahead. It is a bright and beautiful presentation of the “bella stagione” or beautiful season for bountiful fresh local vegetables. It is healthy and is filling because of the bread. Enjoy this one now with summer and Panzanella as the perfect pairing.
PARLA COME MANGI!
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Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography