Panzanella: Italian Bread Salad

I am absolutely delighted with the current trend in the culinary world towards taking time honoured ‘peasant food’ and elevating it to new heights. It’s wonderful, really! This is a way of keeping alive traditional (and delicious) regional cuisine, while also allowing people to take regular (read: CHEAP) ingredients, match them harmoniously, and apply their own personal flair to the dish. Simple flavours and ingredients, simple preparation, and simply delightful.

I love bread. I love salad. It makes sense that I would love Panzanella, which is a very traditional Italian bread salad. This is one of those incredibly easy meals with boring old ingredients like tomato and bread, and yet it defies logic in a more-than-the-sum-of-it’s-parts kind of way. Panzanella is a glorious late summer no-cook meal, and is really at it’s best in August and September when tomatoes are at their succulent, ruby red, vine ripened prime. Remember that this is a very basic dish with few ingredients – each one of them needs to shine. Use the ripest and most flavourful tomatoes that you can find! Make sure your extra virgin olive oil has a rich and fruity bouquet! Don’t just use any old vinegar, find your “special” sherry vinegar that you hid in the back of the cupboard lest somebody use it for unspeakable means (what those would be, I have no idea). And for the bread, oh the bread, use……use the loaf that’s a few days old that you were probably going to compost anyway but just hadn’t got around to it yet. Okay, maybe not ALL the ingredients need to shine…

Ah, see? That’s the OTHER beauty of panzanella. Let’s count them, shall we?

1. The ingredients are flexible and you can play according to your likes and dislikes. Peasant food is how the traditional home-cook distinguished themselves, by applying their own spin, technique, or flair. This is regional cuisine, and everything from the texture to taste varies from city to city, and house to house, so you can really do whatever you like and if someone challenges you just sniff and say, “It’s REGIONAL“. By no means does traditional mean boring.

2. We’re using cheap ingredients that are abundantly available. This pleases me.

3. There is no cooking which means that in the heat of summer, as your A/C croaks and wheezes it’s way along at a refreshing 27 C, you can continue that boycott you have on the stove for anything less than an emergency.

4. Panzanella is like a garbage disposal for old ingredients. All of those half eaten heels of bread that are cluttering up the freezer? Time to defrost. That sawed through baguette that somebody left on the counter overnight? PERFECT.

Panzanella: Italian Bread Salad

Preparation time: 15 minutes + 20 – 30 minutes to sit

Serves: 4 as a meal, 6-8 as a side dish

  • 6 – 8 cups cubed day old bread *
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 1/2 lemon (juice only)
  • 2 – 3 pints cherry tomato *
  • 2 large or 3 medium cloves of garlic
  • 3 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 1/3 cup briny green olives **
  • Handful fresh basil (about 3 good stems)
  • Smaller handful of fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste

* Do these tomatoes look familiar to you? Are you asking yourself why I put cherry tomatoes in everything that I make? Because WE HAVE SO MANY in the garden right now. Those plants just keep cranking them out and we have about a 2L tub every week, which means that I am charged with finding ways to use them up. If you don’t have a glut of cherry tomatoes, use about 6 – 8 Roma tomatoes (seeded) or even 3 good old fashioned Beefsteak (also seeded, please)

** There is a time and a place for pimento stuffed green olives. This is not it. Leave those in the fridge to sprinkle on nachos or drop into a chef salad. You want some good, slightly bitter, briny green olives.

Preheat the oven to 400. I would generally make Panzanella with the better part of a crusty Italian loaf or stale baguette. However, you use what you have. In this case, I have 4 leftover bread rolls because….we went to Costco last week…..Chop these up into chunks of about 1 inch.

Spread your bread cubes in an even layer on 2 baking sheets, and pop these into the oven. After about 10 minutes you want to give them a quick shake, flip them over, and rotate the pans.

Now then, our bread is in the oven so let’s make the dressing! Pour your extra virgin olive oil and vinegars into a really big bowl. I don’t like the garlic for a salad dressing to be in big chunks so I use the rasp to grate it in. You could also use a garlic press, or if you have fabulous knife skills mince it down quite finely.

Top and tail your red onion, and cut it into quarters.

Thinly slice in the other direction.

Give your dressing a quick whisk until it is incorporated and add your onions. I know how salty my olives and capers are (because I promptly started snacking on them as soon as I took the picture) so I had an idea of how much salt I needed for the rest of this dish (slightly less than 1 tsp of kosher salt) and I added it here. It will help to soften and mellow out the onions as they stew in the dressing. However, if you’re hesitant to do this I totally understand, and you can always season the salad when everything is mixed in and you’ve had a test-nibble.

My friend Al called (she of the Tomato, Bocconcini and Chickpea Salad) so I got a bit distracted and before I knew it my bread was ready! It should be firm to the touch, almost like a crouton but not quite so dry, and golden brown in places.

Cut your cherry tomatoes in half. If you’re using Roma tomatoes, slice them vertically into 8 wedges. If you’re using Beefsteak….oh, do whatever you like. You want chunks.

Discard the stems of the parsley and basil, and chop these up.

Tomatoes and herbs are ready to join the onion in your bowl, and squeeze the juice of half a lemon on top.

Throw in your toasted bread, 1 tbsp of capers, and a good handful of green olives which is probably about 1/3 cup.

Get right in there and use your hands to mix everything in. Try to be kind but efficient when you do this so that you don’t break up all of your bread chunks (the smaller ones might be a bit fragile and you don’t want bread crumbs!) but you want to make sure that the bread gets all that dressing and those delicious juices from the onions and tomato. Having a pool of vinagrette in the bottom of the bowl won’t be much good to anyone.

Now is the hard part….you have to let it rest. I know, you’re hungry! So am I! But if you eat it now, you’ll have deliciously dressed croutons. Don’t harsh the mellow of this salad, let it sit quietly with itself for at least 20 or 30 minutes at a bare minimum so the bread softens up. You can almost see it soaking up all the liquid, and in the end you’ll have one bite where the bread is soft and luscious, another where there’s a bit of chew and tooth. I love that.

There might only be the two of us in the house, but I still make a huge batch of this easy and super cheap bread salad because I love, love, love eating the leftovers. Sitting overnight in the fridge does not hurt this ONE BIT. Here is my dinner, below.

Mike paired his with some spicy Italian sausage. If you want more protein, some people throw a can or two of good oil packed tinned tuna into the mix, and it also pairs quite nicely with simple grilled chicken.

Leftovers can be enjoyed to the sounds of: Across the Universe by Rufus Wainwright

(I also can’t stop humming, to the tune of Disney’s Cinderella, “PanzaNELLY, PanzaNELLY! Belt is TIGHTER round my BELLY!!”)