The first time I ever heard of Panzanella was years ago on a Saturday morning—long before I started cooking professionally. I was watching Lorenza de'Medici cook on PBS. I remember that all of her food looked very good, but to be honest, I was not particularly tempted by the Panzanella—a traditional Tuscan bread salad. The idea of soaking stale bread in water in order to soften it before squeezing it out and crumbling it over a bowl of tomatoes (even though they were beautiful summer tomatoes) didn't appeal to me. I don't remember what else, if anything, was in her very traditional version except for a generous amount of Tuscan olive oil. Now, looking back on that salad, my mouth waters as I think about all of those wonderful ripe tomato juices mingling with the olive oil, soaking into the good Tuscan bread.... Surprisingly, of all the things she made during that episode, the panzanella is the only thing I remember.
Panzanella was originally a way of rescuing stale bread. Wasting bread would have been unthinkable. It is an ingenious idea to make a salad that takes advantage of the inherent capacity of old bread to capture and retain vegetable juices that might otherwise be left swimming in the bottom of a bowl. Both the bread and the juices are saved. But, come to think of it, isn't that what we often use bread for? Doesn't everyone love to swipe a nice, substantial piece of bread through a flavorful sauce or a dish of fruity olive oil?
Since that long ago Saturday morning, not only have I seen many traditional versions of panzanella (always with bread, tomatoes and olive oil), I have come across all manner of bread salads styled after panzanella. Chef's love to play with this type of salad, using the bread to absorb vegetable juices, vinaigrettes and even the pan deglazings that result from roasting meat. Michael Chiarello in his book Casual Cooking presents a foursome of panzanellas that feature the produce of each of the four seasons—only the summer version uses tomatoes. Several years ago Gourmet Magazine published a recipe by Chef Frank Stitt for Cornbread Panzanella. This version uses all of the traditional vegetable ingredients, except it substitutes Stitt's native southern cornbread for the yeast bread. It has become one of my favorites.
I don't very often have stale bread on hand. I freeze what I'm not going to eat before it gets stale. But to make panzanella, you don't really have to have stale bread—you can create it by cutting up fresh or day old bread and toasting it in the oven. Michael Chiarello calls this homemade "stale" bread "panzanella croutons." To make them, use any artisanal loaf that has a nice open crumb. Ciabatta is the usual choice (and it is a good choice), but I prefer focaccia because it is a well seasoned bread and you don't have to trim away any tough crusts.
To me the most amazing thing about panzanella is how refreshing it can be...even light. I expect that a salad made up in a large part of olive oil-drenched bread will be heavy. But somehow it is not. When I make mine, I wait to add the vinaigrette until the bread has been first tossed with all of the vegetables and their juices. This way the bread absorbs the light vegetables juices before it starts to take up the olive oil in the vinaigrette. I think the other thing that makes this a light and refreshing salad is the presence of the raw red onion and cucumber. If added in thin slices, these add a juicy, delicate crunch.
Panzanella makes a fine first course salad. For a light lunch, add a slice of cheese and you're set. Panzanella also makes a nice side to grilled or roasted meats for dinner. Frank Stitt serves his cornbread panzanella as a side to grilled lamb. We had a traditional summer version for dinner the other night with a pan-roasted chicken breast:
Late Summer Panzanella
For the Panzanella Croutons:
8 to 9 cups cubed (1/2-inch) day old bread—preferably focaccia, but any good Italian or French bread with an open crumb will do. If something other than focaccia is chosen, you will need to trim away the hard crusts. You should have about 10 oz. of cubed bread.
3 T. olive oil
Toss bread cubes with the olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Bake in a 400° oven until the bread is crisp and light golden, but still soft inside—about 10 minutes. Let cool. If making ahead, store air-tight.
For the Salad:
4 bell peppers—2 red and 2 yellow, if available—if not, use all red
2 T. red-wine vinegar
1 T. Sherry vinegar
Salt & Pepper, or to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large vine-ripened tomatoes (2 lb.), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces—juices reserved
2 cloves garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1 small red onion, quartered lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise and rinsed (you will have about 1 to 1 1/3 c. sliced onion)
12 oz. cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise (peel the cucumber first if the skin is tough)—you will have about 2 c.
3 T. capers, rinsed
16 large fresh basil leaves, cut in a wide chiffonade
3 handfuls (about 3 oz.) arugula, large stems removed and torn into bite-sized pieces
Roast the bell peppers on racks of gas burners over high heat, turning with tongs, until skins are blackened, 10 to 12 minutes (or broil peppers on a broiler pan about 5 inches from heat, turning occasionally, about 15 minutes). Transfer peppers to a platter and let cool. When cool enough to handle, peel peppers, discarding stems and seeds, and reserving any juices. Cut the peppers into 1-inch pieces.
Whisk together vinegars in a large bowl and season with salt & pepper. Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking. Set aside.
Place the peppers and tomatoes in a large bowl along with any reserved juices (see note). Add the garlic and gently stir to make sure the garlic is dispersed in the liquid. Add the onions, cucumbers, capers and basil.
Toss to combine. Add the croutons and toss again. Pour the vinaigrette over all and toss well. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Allow the salad to sit for 15 minutes or so to allow the croutons to soften.
When the croutons are at the point you prefer (still with a bit of texture, or quite soft), add the arugula and toss. Taste the salad and correct the seasoning and texture by adding more vegetable juices (if you have them--see note), olive oil or sherry vinegar. Add more salt & pepper, if necessary. Serve, garnished with shaved Parmesan, if you like. Serves 8 to 10.
Note: Set aside any juices in excess of 1/3 cup and add to the salad only as needed to further soften the bread.