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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Panzanella salad, summer's last hurrah


Morning fog is creeping in every morning and staying later each day here, a sure sign that summer is departing soon.  David and I went up to the garden yesterday to get some tomatoes.  We had a late start this season for our tomato plants, and Cynthia said we'd have plenty of tomatoes well into October.  So perhaps this is not quite the last hurrah for us, but it might be for a lot of you.  I thought I'd do a classic salad, one of my favorite things to do when I have ripe, juicy tomatoes and some stale bread around.

No, no, this isn't my usual pan con tomate.  We're not in Spain tonight, we're just a bit over to the East in Italy.  Panzanella, the Italian tomato and bread salad, is just as simple as the Spanish pan con tomate, and every bit as good.  Stale bread, juicy tomatoes, fragrant basil, tossed together with a simple vinaigrette, it can hardly get much simpler.

Just because it is simple to make doesn't mean there isn't a trick or two to it. Tossing tough stale bread and delicate tomatoes too roughly can result in a pile of bread colored by red mush.  It still taste good, I'm sure, but it won't look very pretty.  What I do is make a dressing, dress the tomatoes first, getting the juices running and mingling with the vinaigrette for a couple minutes, then pour that juicy, delicious elixir over the bread cubes (in a separate bowl), leaving the tomato pieces out for the moment.  I let the bread and tomato juice soak for five minutes, then toss everything together, adding the basil right at the very end.  This way, my salad is just as pretty as it is delicious.  Every time.

Panzanella salad

serves 2 hungry people or 4-6 as part of a larger meal
4 large heirloom tomatoes (about 1,200g or 2.5lbs)
3 thick slices of crusty bread cut into cubes (about 150g or 5oz)
a handful of basil (I used purple basil and tiny greek basil for mine.)


I feel funny giving a recipe for this.  To me, making a vinaigrette is something so personal, no two people will make them the same way.  Plus, the components of vinaigrette, olive oil, vinegar, even salt, don't taste the same from one brand or producer to another.  I guess I'll just tell you roughly how I do mine for the panzanella, and you can follow it or just make your own favorite vinaigrette. 

I usually put mustard in my vinegar, and a smidgen of light honey to keep it in check.  I don't in this one, however.  I find that the mustard makes it just a bit too astringent for this purpose.  I also use more vinegar in my panzanella vinaigrette than in my usual one, as it needs to add flavor to the bland bread.

5 T vinegar (I like a combination of sherry vinegar and red wine vinegar.)
8 T olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
a drop of honey

In a bowl large enough to toss everything together, add the vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a drop of honey.  Use the back of a wooden spoon to mix well, taste it to see if it needs a bit more salt.  Add the oil and stir to mix again.  Cut the tomatoes into wedges and add to the bowl with the vinaigrette.  Toss to mix and let sit for 2-3 minutes, tossing once or twice more during that time.

Meanwhile, cut the stale bread into cubes.  Take a bowl pretty enough to serve the salad in and throw the bread in it.  When the tomatoes in vinaigrette are ready, you should see lots of delicious juices in the tomato-vinaigrette bowl, pour the juices over the bread cubes in the pretty bowl.  Toss the bread gently to coat with the juice.  Let sit for about five minutes.

When you're ready to serve, pour the bread cubes back into the tomato bowl, toss well.  Tear basil leaves and toss well with the bread and tomatoes (save a few pretty leaves for garnish).  Add a few turns of the peppermill and toss again to mix.  Taste the salad, add more salt or vinegar as needed.  Give the pretty serving bowl a quick wipe, then pour the salad into it.  Top with the rest of the basil, I also like to pour fresh olive oil over the whole thing, just lightly, only to add some freshness to it.  There you have it, panzanella salad, delicous and gorgeous to boot.

David and I drank '04 J.L. Chave's Saint Joseph with our dinner last night.  Basically because we just bought like a case of that wine.  It went perfectly well with it, actually.  I'm sure a lovely rose to toast the departing summer will do just fine too.


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