In September I posted a classic version of Panzanella. Today I am sharing a favorite winter variation. As far as definitions are concerned I won't repeat myself too much from my earlier post other than to point out that it is the ability of dry bread to absorb liquid that accounts for the success of the classic version of this salad—the perfectly ripe summer tomatoes providing a particularly fine liquid. But tomatoes aren't the only source of flavorful liquid. A few moments consideration will bring to mind many others—vinaigrettes, pan deglazings from sautéed or roasted meats and vegetables, vegetable cooking liquids, etc. Once you begin to think outside the realm of tomatoes, you will begin to focus on the bread, seeing it as a great foundation upon which to build a tasty salad or side dish featuring your favorite seasonal vegetables.
My winter panzanella is a variation on a recipe in Michael Chiarello's Casual Cooking. To his base of butternut squash and Brussels sprouts I have added roasted chunks of sweet-tart apple and crunchy pieces of toasted walnuts. It would be just as tasty with the addition of some roasted or sautéed mushrooms and some shaved Parmesan or diced Gruyère instead of the walnuts and apples. Or, a favorite root vegetable, or combination of root vegetables, could be substituted for the butternut squash. If Brussels sprouts don't appeal, then blanched shredded Cabbage or Kale could be used in their place.
The blanching liquid from the greens makes a good liquid for softening the bread if it is still a bit dry or crunchy after the vinaigrette has been added. But if you prefer a more salad-like version of this dish—one made with fresh greens (maybe arugula, spinach or chopped romaine or radicchio)—then you could simply use some warm salted water to further soften the bread...or maybe the deglazings from the pan-roasted chicken breast or pork chop with which the salad will be served.
In Chiarello's original recipe, the red onions were raw and thinly sliced. I chose to cut them into a large dice and roast them instead. I wanted their presence to be more in harmony with the sweet roasted squash and apples. I used walnuts to provide the crunch that the raw onions gave to his version. How you choose to treat any onions that you add to a salad like this is up to you, but I do think they should be included. Onions provide interest and depth. And the variety of members of the onion family that would be good in a winter panzanella is considerable—poached sliced leeks, puréed roasted garlic, thinly sliced shallots, caramelized onions or shallots, glazed pearl or cipollini onions, sliced green onions, etc. The ones you select and the manner in which you treat them is dependent on what kind of texture and flavor you want to add to your salad.
I hope that the next time you are at a loss for what to cook for dinner and you have the remainder of a nice artisanal loaf of bread hanging around, you will consider making your own version of winter panzanella. Simply begin with vegetables that are at their peak during the winter months—mentally composing a pleasing medley of roasted/sautéed vegetables...something that would make a good side dish—and then think of the bread as an extender...or the starch component of your meal. Vary the vinegar to go with your chosen vegetables and then include herbs, toasted nuts, dried fruits, cheeses, olives or capers for added flavor and texture. You will be amazed how easy it is to come up with your own combinations. Like pizza toppings and seasonal pasta sauces, with a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.
4 c. peeled and diced (¾-inch) butternut squash (you’ll need a 1 ½ lb. squash to get 4 cups)
1 medium red onion, cut in a ¾-inch dice (about 2 cups)
2 medium apples, peeled and cut in a ¾-inch dice (Braeburn, Jonathon or Golden Delicious)
1/2 to 3/4 c. olive oil
Salt & Pepper
2 T. Sherry Vinegar
4 c. Panzanella croutons (see below)
½ lb. Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and thinly sliced lengthwise (about 3 cups, shredded)
½ c. Walnut pieces, toasted
½ c. flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves
Toss the squash, onion & apples with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and spread on a rimmed baking sheet—the vegetables should fit the pan in a snug single layer.
While the vegetables roast, make a vinaigrette with the Sherry vinegar and 6 T. of the olive oil. Set aside.
Place the croutons in a large bowl with the roasted vegetables. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook until they are tender, but retain a touch of crispness—about 3 minutes. Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Add the sprouts to the bowl of croutons and vegetables. Add the vinaigrette and toss. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and sherry vinegar. If the salad seems dry, or the bread is crunchy, add more olive oil or some of the Brussels sprouts cooking liquid. The amount of liquid the salad will need is greatly dependent on how dry the bread is. At this point the salad may need to sit for a few moments to allow the bread to absorb moisture from the vegetables and the vinaigrette. Add the parsley and the walnuts and toss again. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil before serving.
Serves 6 as a side or first course, or 4 as an entrée.
Panzanella croutons: Toss 6 cups of cubed (1/2-inch) crust-free slightly stale, “day-old” bread (if you are using focaccia, it is not necessary to remove the crusts) with 4 T. of olive oil or melted butter. Spread on a baking sheet and bake in a 400° oven until the bread is crisp and light golden, but still soft inside—about 10 minutes. Let cool. Store airtight. If you like, you may toss 1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan with the croutons before baking. Makes 4 to 4 ½ cups croutons.
(Recipe adapted from Michael Chiarello's Casual Cooking)
Note: When creating variations on this salad, strive for slightly more vegetables than bread. When measuring out your vegetables, remember that many vegetables shrink when cooked, sometimes by as much as fifty percent. It's best to err on the side of too many vegetables rather than too much bread.