As I considered what I might do with the bread, I remembered Frank Stitt's delicious recipe for Cornbread Panzanella that ran several years ago in Gourmet Magazine. To make the Panzanella, the cornbread is cubed and toasted and then serves as the "bread" portion of the salad. The cornbread he uses is a typical southern cornbread made with bacon drippings and without sugar. It is also on the dry side...perfect for sopping up the abundant juices of the summer vegetables in the salad. The Zucchini Cornbread I had on hand was really not much like this...sweet and moist and unfortunately without bacon...but I liked the idea of a salad.
This was all in the back of my mind as I was flipping through the current issue of Food & Wine. There, I came across a delicious looking salad of grilled peaches and onions, bacon, and ... Ranch Dressing. I have to admit that I tend to avoid Ranch Dressing. It is so widely available...and frankly boring in its bottled form. It is so hard to remember that things often become ubiquitous by virtue of the fact that they were pretty great in their original form. As I examined the picture of this salad, I could practically taste the dressing. I knew that its cool and creamy presence was the perfect foil for the juicy peaches and salty-smoky bacon. When I skimmed through the recipe I noticed that this Ranch dressing was made with a healthy dose of fresh mint. This is a bit unusual. Typically Ranch Dressing is made with chives and parsley, but mint seemed perfect here. I then remembered that the accompaniment to Stitt's Cornbread Panzanella (and the lamb he served it with) was a pool of mint aioli.
Suddenly my dinner salad came together: A large Zucchini Cornbread "Crouton", nestled in a salad of sliced vine ripened tomatoes, topped with a room temperature medley of corn, bacon, zucchini and cherry tomatoes—with a generous drizzle of mint-spiked Ranch Dressing over all. The dressing really was the perfect touch.
I wish that I could give you an exact recipe, but in practice a recipe for a salad like this would seem a bit constraining. So instead of a recipe, I'll just give the basic idea of what I did. For each person: Roast an ear of sweet corn and cut the kernels from the cob. Cook off a couple of ounces of bacon until crisp. I cut mine into 2 inch lengths and cooked it, but it would probably be easier to cook strips and break them in random chunks. Thinly slice a small amount of red onion (maybe a quarter of a small one per person) and sauté it with a sprinkling of picked thyme in some of the bacon fat until tender and golden. Remove it to a plate and use the same pan to quickly sauté some zucchini. Since I was going after large chunks of vegetables in this salad, I halved the zucchini (maybe about 2 oz. per person) lengthwise and cut each half on a long diagonal into 1/4-inch thick slices. When tender and golden, add the zucchini to the plate with the red onions to cool.
To assemble the salad, slice (or wedge) some vine ripened tomatoes and spread on a plate (about 1 medium tomato per person). Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with the ranch dressing.
For each salad, brush a 3/4-inch thick slab of cornbread with a very light film of soft butter. I loved the sweetness of this particular cornbread with the tangy dressing and salty bacon...but any cornbread that slices nicely will work. Place the slices on a baking sheet and toast in a hot oven (450°)—or broil on both sides—until golden brown.
Place the cornbread croutons on top of the tomatoes (off center so it will be visible after the rest of the ingredients are added). Place the corn, zucchini and onions and some halved cherry tomatoes (5 or 6 per person) in a bowl and season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Toss to combine. Taste and add a squeeze of lemon or lime if necessary. Pile this mixture on top of the tomatoes and cornbread crouton. Drizzle some of the ranch dressing over all.
I thought this salad was very good....I will definitely make it again. And if I don't happen to have any leftover cornbread, I won't let that stop me. Next time I might add some roasted potatoes (which would be excellent with ranch dressing) to the salad as a stand-in for the cornbread. I love the combination of roasted corn and fresh tomatoes so I'm sure this mix of corn, tomatoes and ranch dressing will show up on my table again and again.
In fact, to finish off this batch of ranch dressing, I made another roasted corn based salad. Besides tomatoes, this one featured some of the meaty Romano beans (about 2 oz. per person) from one of my favorite growers at the market. To prepare them, trim the stem end and cut the beans into 1-inch lengths on the diagonal. Blanch in boiling salted water until tender. Lift out and cool on a towel. Combine the corn and cooled beans with some halved cherry tomatoes, a small amount of very thinly sliced red onion (rinsed and tossed with a splash of sherry vinegar) and a drizzle of olive oil. Build in the same way as the other salad, with a layer of sliced and seasoned vine ripes, a drizzle of dressing and then the roasted corn medley. Drizzle with more dressing. It was delicious with a cheese quesadilla:
If you haven't ever made ranch dressing (or, if it has been a while), I encourage you to make a batch...the real stuff...from scratch (not a packet). Now is the perfect time. It's cooling effect is just the thing at the end of a hot day.
1/4 c. Buttermilk
1/4 c. Sour Cream
1/4 c. Mayonnaise
1 small clove of garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
3 or 4 T. (or more) minced fresh herbs—chives and Italian flat-leaf parsley are traditional, but mint, basil and dill are all nice additions. I particularly like chives in mine, so I always try to include some chives.
1 1/2 to 2 T. lemon or lime juice
Salt & pepper
Whisk the first three ingredients together in a small bowl until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt & pepper. I like my dressing to be pretty tangy, but add citrus to please your palate. Also, don't be shy with the salt—the dressing will be bland and disappointing if it is under salted. Makes a scant cup of dressing.
(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine, July 2012 and The All New Joy of Cooking)