Panzanella is the Ultimate Summer Salad and a Sublime Way to Use Peak Season Tomatoes
Looking for the ultimate summer salad—a showcase for peak-season tomatoes that refreshing and filling? In Italian there is a name for that: Panzanella. This mouthwateringly juicy salad checks a few boxes: fresh and light; savory and filling. More satisfying than a salad of greens or a simple plate of heirloom tomatoes, when made with the right combination of ingredients this traditional Tuscan salad is a perfect balance of texture and flavor.
Is there anyone who can say they've never been seduced by a golden, rustic loaf from a favorite artisanal bakery? The bread is perfect, and quite costly too. Yet so often, before we've gotten around to enjoying the whole loaf, its crust has lost its beautiful crackle, and the bread has lost its fresh chew. It's a crying shame to let even a little bit of it go uneaten. Panzanella is a brilliant way to use old bread and is also a way to make the most of summer garden bounty. Typically, panzanella is made with juicy, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and basil. Additions such as celery, chopped anchovies, capers, and other herbs can make it extra savory, if desired. It should always be well seasoned and have a good dose of vinegar and olive oil. Panzanella is the ultimate in frugal simplicity, especially in the summer months when humidity makes good bread prone to soften and lose its crunch.
Soaking old bread gives it new life and puts it to use in a delicious way. After it's been reconstituted, in Italy it is traditionally squeezed through the hands until it breaks into softened crumbs, which are then tossed with tomatoes and cucumbers, and dressed until all the juices mingle. Here in the U.S., we often prefer large pieces of grilled or toasted country bread in our panzanella. Along with the soft, soaked bread bursting with flavor from the marinade, some bites retain their crunch from being toasted in advance so there are many textures to enjoy within a plate of this salad.
To make a meal of it, serve panzanella with a ball of milky mozzarella, a platter of grilled vegetables or seafood. It's a perfect choice for summer tables. Adaptations abound, the simplest add cheese, and the most surprising substitute a sweet stone fruit for the tomatoes. Some variations add beans and other ingredients for protein like this recipe which has both canned tuna and butter beans.
Chefs Rita Sodi and Jody Williams serve panzanella at their New York City restaurant Via Carota in the summer months. They insist on waiting until local tomatoes are ripe before adding the salad to their menu. How to tell? Pick up a tomato before buying it. You will know the tomato is full of flavor if it's fragrant, and most importantly, if it feels heavy when you pick it up it will be juicy. The James Beard Award-winning chefs like to use an assortment of heirloom tomatoes for color and flavor. The chefs say: "We make a vinegary water bath for softening and seasoning our bread. We start with days-old bread and tear it into large pieces. We let the bread soak in this bath until it softens, and then squeeze it gently through our hands. Slice the tomatoes into varying shapes and sizes, and toss with cucumber, celery, spring onions, and basil. After dressing the vegetables, allow them to release their juices before tossing the bread into the bowl." Their recipe for panzanella will be featured in their upcoming book: Via Carota: A Celebration of Seasonal Cooking from the Beloved Greenwich Village Restaurant ($35.49, amazon.com).
The best traditions teach us clever ways to waste less. Your summer kitchen is a perfect place to practice economy, while enjoying the small luxuries of the season. Now that you know about this panzanella won't you think twice before throwing away a few slices of days-old bread?