It was my birthday last week and my husband and I planned to have diner at an Italian restaurant in our neighborhood. At the last minute, we decided to switch it out for several nights of taken-in instead. More food: same amount of money. We felt pretty clever.
The first night was Chinese. The second was Middle Eastern, and the third night we got appetizers from the same Italian restaurant we were going to eat at in the first place.
One of the things we ordered was panzanella. I’ve always avoided it because the thought of bread in a salad just didn’t click with me. But, like so many other things in life, all it took was giving it a try to prove me wrong.
It’s a much more exciting salad than I expected, but very simple at the same time. There are the colors of the juicy chunks of tomato, crusty cubes of bread, half moons of crunchy cucumber, and slivers of sharp red onion. No greens except the roughly torn basil leaves which contribute a strong licorice taste. Add the fruitiness of the olive oil, the tang of the vinegar, and the hot bite of coarse black pepper and you wind up with a wonderful thing. But at its core, the real thing about this salad is the mixing of the tomato juices and olive oil with the bread. Both the flavor and the texture are memorable.
serves two for lunch
oven to 325
4 slices very crusty Italian or artisan bread, cut into bite sized cubes
1 clove of garlic, peeled and halved
3 cups diced tomatoes (about 5 or 6 small heirloom tomatoes)
1/2 medium English (seedless) cucumber, halved lengthwise and sliced
1/2 small red onion, cut in fine wedges
1 bunch basil leaves, roughly torn
about 4 Tbsp good fruity olive oil
about 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and fresh cracked black pepper
- Put the bread on an ungreased baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Rub the inside of your serving bowl with the cut sides of the garlic. Discard the garlic. Put the tomatoes, cucumber, onions and basil leaves in the bowl. Add the cubes of bread.
- Mix a simple vinaigrette with the oil and vinegar. Taste it and adjust it to suit you. Stir vigorously with a spoon, and then drizzle over the salad Toss well.
- Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
- Let the salad sit for about 15-30 minutes and then serve it up!
I know this kind of salad is the ultimate late summer experience, but actually there are some pretty good tomatoes available year round these days, and the bread gives it a heartier feel that seems appropriate for cooler weather. There are a few keys to it, as far as I can tell. First, obviously, get good tomatoes. And the crustier the bread, the better. When it soaks in the dressing, the soft part of the bread will become almost custard like, but the crust will retain its firmness. Then, get a really fruity green olive oil. Something that tastes amazing all by itself. I’ve been making a point to pick up a different brand every time I replenish my supply. I’m finding that the local California oils are my favorite, they have the freshest, fruitiest flavor