Panzanella (Italian bread salad)

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Late Spring in the Pacific Northwest heralds the advent of weekly Farmers' Markets. It seems that every city and town hosts a once-a-week gathering of vendors selling crafts, artisan breads, fresh flowers, and local fruits and vegetables.

Each Tuesday there is a Farmers' Market near by younger daughter's house. I meet her there when she gets off of work and we spend an hour or so wandering, visiting each vendor, and chatting with neighbors. It gives the two of us a chance to shop together, talk, and simply enjoy all of the sights and sounds and aromas of a local market. And when we shop there, we know that we are supporting our local merchants. A win-win if you ask me.

This week we discovered amazing rustic breads from a local bakery, fresh basil, and some heirloom tomatoes.

Do you have any idea what an amazing meal you could make with just those simple ingredients?

In the Tuscanny area of Italy it is common to find Panzanella (pahn-zah-NEHL-lah), or bread salad, not only in restaurants, but in the homes of those living in central Italy. Italian cooks waste nothing and this is commonly a way to utilize stale bread and vegetables from the garden.

The record of panzanella goes back centuries. In the 1500s, a poem by the famous artist, Bronzino, described the salad. Of course, the tomato was quite a few years from being introduced into the Italian kitchen, so the ingredients didn't include tomatoes. But the panzanella's created today take advantage of the wonderful earthy/sweet flavors of home-grown tomatoes at their finest.

Cook Time

Prep time: 15 min
Ready in: 15 min
Yields: 2 servings (with instructions for how to increase)

Ingredients

  • day-old bread
  • cucumber, peeled and diced
  • tomatoes, roma, beefsteak, heirloom, or tomato of your choice
  • red onion, thinly sliced
  • basil leaves
  • olive oil
  • vinegar
  • salt and pepper
  1. Suggestions for serving two people: 4-5 slices of day-old bread (1/2 loaf), 1 cucumber, 4 (Roma / small) tomatoes (or 1-2 large), 5-10 basil leaves, 1/4 red onion.
  2. Take the day-old bread, and lightly moisten it under the faucet. It should be moistened all the way through. If it’s too wet, gently squeeze excess water from the bread with your hands and set aside while chopping vegetables. The bread should crumble, not clump/collapse or get soggy.
  3. Shred the bread into a large salad bowl. I like to keep some larger pieces of bread in my panzanella, but you can crumble the bread down until there are very fine pieces, or “breadcrumbs” that resemble couscous.
  4. Cut the cucumbers and tomatoes into pieces and add them to the bowl. Thinly slice a red onion and chiffonade the basil. Chiffonade means that you place all of the basil leaves in one layer, roll them up like a jelly roll, and then use a sharp knife to make very thin slices).
  5. Add vinegar and olive oil and mix completely (start with a small amount of each, like 1 T. of vinegar and 3 T. of olive oil) and add more to taste. Taste before adding salt and pepper.
  6. The salad can be served immediately or chilled for 30 minutes in the refrigerator before serving.

Other Possible Add-ins

  • roasted bell pepper, diced
  • drained garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • feta cheese
  • shaved pecorino romano cheese
  • crumbled blue cheese
  • crisp crumbled bacon
  • chopped walnuts
  • hard-cooked eggs, chopped
  • fresh steamed asparagus tips
  • crisp broccoli florets

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