I’ve just returned from the market, and the tomatoes are in their prime today. Of course there were the very best big red Beefsteaks, but also Aunt Gertie’s Gold, impressive two-color Tiger Stripe, deeply maroon Black Pearl, and particularly beautiful Green Zebras (gold and green variegated).
This summer at Brian Beal Moore Catering, we’ve made great Caprese, velvety Gazpacho, and sautéed sweet Cherry Tomatoes to go alongside grilled Filet Mignon. But we have yet had the opportunity to create a Panzanella.
The first time I had a Panzanella was in Florence, I had just arrived and it was August… and well over thirty years ago!
My experience of authentic Italian dishes was rather lame. The most unusual I had ever had was Chicken Piccata - so simple and elegant, and it introduced me to my lifelong love of capers. Of course I had pizza - which I learned was far from being authentic! And your general shaped pastas with a mediocre red sauce.
It wasn’t until I got to Naples to really have an incredibly good Pizza Margherita, and in Rome I discovered Pasta al Burro e Parmigiano, that totally swept me off me feet! But it was while on the island of Elba, that I had my first Panzanella.
At first I thought I had misunderstood the waiter (my Italian was good, but not nearly as good as when I left), and I understood him to say “Old Stale Bread Salad”. Now, after I confirmed with my companions that this is indeed what he said, and his assurances that it was at the top of its season - and I thought “Old stale bread has a season?! - we ordered it.
It was served family style and when it arrived it was absolutely beautiful, a joyous riot of color, with an aroma of freshness that was laced with wisps of hand torn-basil. Multi-hued tomatoes were tossed with cucumbers and the “old stale bread” with a simple vinaigrette. The combination was magic.
Of course back then I had no inkling that my life would dominated by food decades later, and we didn’t have cell phones with cameras, so I was unable to record my culinary finds.
I have constructed a recipe for a very good Panzanella that is delicious and easy to prepare. The bread in Italy is quite different than one usually finds here in the United States, so I purchase a good baguette, cube it, brush it with a bit of Olive Oil and dry it out in a slow oven. It is traditional to let the dried bread soak up a bit of the juices released from the tomato, perhaps thirty minutes up to an hour, but not so long that the bread becomes mush.
prep time: 10 minutes, cook time: 20 minutes, serves eight
1 Loaf Crusty French Baguette
1 Whole English Cucumber, Halved, Seeded and Sliced
6 Whole Assorted Tomatoes, Cut Into Wedges
1/2 Whole Red Onion Very Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Olive Oil Plus More For Drizzling On The Bread
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
Salt And Pepper
25 whole Basil Leaves, Chiffonade (more To Taste)
Parmesan di Reggiano Shavings
Olive Oil, For Drizzling
How to Prepare
Preheat the oven to 275 F. Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes, arrange on a baking sheet, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Place the pan in the oven for 20-25 minutes to slightly dry out the bread without toasting it. Remove it from the oven and allow to cool.
In a large bowl, combine bread, cucumber, tomatoes, and onion. In a small jar, shake together the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Pour over the salad ingredients, tossing gently. Add basil and Parmesan shavings and toss again. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for up to an hour before serving.
Sprinkle with more salt and pepper and serve.