Panzanella, Tuscan bread salad. Photo by
Jerry Keith | Wikimedia.
Bread salad, like French toast and croutons, is one of those delicious recipes invented by necessity: Poor people needed to get another meal from leftover bread that had gone stale.
Panzanella is a Tuscan-style bread salad made with a loaf of day-old (or older) Italian bread, cubed into large croutons and soaked in vinaigrette to soften it. Chopped salad vegetables are added. The translation we have found for “panzanella” is “bread in a swamp,” the swamp being the water or vinaigrette in which it was soaked.
While today’s recipes are rich in ingredients, the original preparers foraged to pull together vegetables from the garden—cucumber, onion and tomato—and possibly purslane, a salad green that grows wild. Early recipes were heavy on the onions, the cheapest ingredient to pair with the bread. When there wasn’t enough oil to spare, the bread was moistened in water.
Today, this peasant dish is a popular first course in Italy. It doesn’t appear often on menus of U.S.-based Italian restaurants. That’s too bad, because it’s a dish worth knowing. So today’s tip is: Make a bread salad! It‘s a refreshing summer dish that takes just minutes to whip up.
As long as you have vinaigrette-soaked bread, you can create the salad from anything. It‘s a great way to use up any leftovers—including beans, cheese, fish, meat and rice—and aging produce.
RECIPE: TUSCAN BREAD SALAD (PANZANELLA)
Ingredients For 4 Servings
1 cup or more vinaigrette, 3:1 proportion of olive oil to vinegar, divided
1 pound loaf rustic Italian bread*, ideally 2 days old, sliced into large, square croutons
6 large basil leaves (more to taste), chiffonade (shredded)
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and sliced
1 small sweet onion (e.g. Vidalia) or red onion, sliced, rings separated
1 small cucumber, sliced
1/4 cup vinegar
3 or more tablespoons good olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Minced parsley for garnish
“The kitchen sink”: anchovies, bell peppers, capers, celery, carrots, hard cooked eggs, lettuce, mozzarella, olives, tuna, zucchini, whatever you have
Seasonings: garlic, lemon juice, mint, wine
*Be sure to use a loaf that has a firm crust and dense crumb, with enough body to be be soaked in the vinaigrette without falling apart. Too many American-style “Italian” breads are soft and airy.
1. MAKE vinaigrette and toss bread in half of it, allowing it to soak for 20 minutes or longer (this step can be done hours in advance). Continue to toss as necessary to fully moisten the bread.
2. PREPARE the salad. Toss with the remaining vinaigrette, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper.
3. MIX in the bread and serve.
WHY NOT JUST MAKE CROUTONS OR CROSTINI?
Croutons or crostini required a fire. In the heat of the summer, panzanella requires no cooking.
Try grilled “panzanella crostini” as an appetizer. Photo courtesy Nestle.
PANZANELLA CROSTINI: A DECONSTRUCTED TUSCAN BREAD SALAD
If you’re using a grill to cook other food, you can turn the panzanella recipe into an appetizer of crostini of salad-topped grilled bread.
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Peeled garlic clove, halved
Bread, sliced into crostini-size pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish: fresh basil, chiffonade
1. SOAK garlic clove in oil for 30 minutes or longer. Then make vinaigrette: Whisk together oil, vinegar and garlic, with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
2. HEAT grill. Brush bread on each side with oil, then sprinkle lightly with salt. Grill for 30 seconds on each side or until nicely browned. Set aside and cool to room temperature.
3. TOSS salad ingredients of choice with just enough vinaigrette to moisten. Top crostini with salad, garnish with basil and serve.