Apricot and Sage Panzanella
Has there ever been a time when ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ were not a delightful pair? If so, I don’t know when. Wait – I do know when (damn you, home hair color kit!). Oh…actually, I know a couple of whens (easy-off wall paper removal indeed, and plantable papers full of wild-flower seeds can kiss my rump). Ah. And then there’s Hamburger Helper, a food source which should never have existed and which I somehow still have two boxes of for a god forsaken reason that I truly don’t comprehend. Note: I do not eat Hamburger Helper. I did not buy Hamburger Helper. I would ask Mike why we have two boxes of Hamburger Helper in our pantry, but frankly I don’t want to know the answer to that.
But back to cheap and easy, my favorite way of being. I have this unfortunate habit of buying bread and not eating it. Like, not in the “there’s still a heel left” kind of way, but more like an, “Oops, I fell asleep on the couch at 7 pm and never made dinner” kind of a way. Yes, I just gave you a glimpse into the last two weeks of my life, but what of it. Hence, leftover baguettes aplenty in our house. Every few weeks I’m forced to look at the evidence: a loaf of bread that I really meant to use, and just….didn’t. I’m actually okay with that though, because you know what’s just as good as fresh bread? Re-purposed stale bread. Seriously. I mean, you can make strata, stuffing, use it as a topping for soup, use it IN a rustic Italian soup, or make a traditional panzanella if you really feel the yen.
Panzanella roughly translates to bread salad. Essentially, you have stale bread which is softened and moistened with dressing and a watery fruit or vegetable (usually tomato) with occasionally some vegetables for crunch and/or something briny and cured for a salty tang. I do love a traditional panzanella (peasant food is totally where it’s at), but sometimes you don’t have tomatoes – you have a big bag of apricots. And sometimes you don’t have basil because the effing rabbits ate it all (I’m having dreams of rabbit pot pie – after all, it’s been pre-seasoned from the inside out), but for some reason they wanted nothing to do with the sage. So maybe, just maybe, you want to try something different with panzanella: what about a slightly sweet, infinitely herbal and musky iteration that still seems to preserve summer in a bowl but without all the classicism of a traditional panzanella? That would be alright, wouldn’t it?
Now please do remember that sage has a very strong flavor which tends towards the..uh…overpowering. Start out slow, with 1.5 tsp, and add up according to taste. If you aren’t serving the salad until the next day you can feel free to add a little more, maybe 1 tbsp of sage in total. But remember, always start with less and add more.
Apricot and Sage Panzanella
Serves 6-8 as a side, 4-6 for lunch
- 5-6 cups day old bread (1 baguette)
- 1.75 lb (about 10) fresh ripe apricots *
- 1/2 red onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
- 2.5 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
- 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- couple sprigs (1 tsp) fresh thyme
- few sprigs (1.5 – 2 tsp) fresh sage **
- salt and pepper
* The apricots need to be ripe and juicy, but not over ripe and mushy. I know, that’s a narrow time frame, but do try your best. Over ripe apricots will turn to fermented mush after a few hours, and under ripe apricots won’t produce enough liquid to fully moisten and sweeten the bread.
** Sage has a very distinctive, very strong kind of flavor. As it steeps in the dressing it will mellow out, which means that if you’re planning to serve this the next day then you can add a bit more. However, tend towards the less rather than the more. Don’t worry, people will still eat it and say, “Oh, apricots and sage!” even if you use the same amount of sage and thyme. An overbearing herb, true, but I do feel affection for it just the same.
Preheat your oven to 450ºF. I know, it’s hot outside and you don’t want to do that, but it will only be on for a short time – I promise. And not one of those finger-crossing promises (like, “I promise to stop eating so much cheese”) either.
Rasp or press the clove of garlic into a medium sized bowl and dollop the mustard on top. Pour over both vinegars and whisk it to combine. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly, until you have a homogenous mixture. Season your dressing fairly liberally with salt and pepper. After all, the seasoning in this dressing is going to need to cover more than 9 cups of bread salad, so you can have a hesitant hand if you like (and add more later) but that’s something to bear in mind.
Peel the half onion and slice it vertically in half. Thinly slice the onion (less than 1/8″) into little crescents and add this to the dressing. Letting the onion stew in the vinegary dressing for a little while will mellow it out, so you don’t take a bite and go, “OH ONION!”. It’s more like, “Oooh, apricot and sage panzanella…with some sweet red onion. How very pleasant.” You see the distinction, right? Right.
Cut the slightly stale day old baguette in half, and then cube it into large chunks, each about 1″ or so. Spread the bread out on a dry baking sheet and pop it into the top third of your hot oven.
Check on the bread after about 2 minutes and give it a shake or flip before putting it back in. Let the bread continue to cook for another minute or so (it only takes 3-5 minutes in total, depending on how stale it was to start off with) until the pieces are mostly golden brown with a little bit of caramelization on the edges. See? Five minutes or less, and you can turn that stove back off. I try to keep my lying ratio down to once per day, and I already used today’s when I told Mike, “Of COURSE I put the laundry in the dryer yesterday!” and then went tearing downstairs before he could dispute.
Halve those juicy apricots, discard the pits, and cut each half into 3-4 half moons that are about 1/2″ thick. Wash and seed the pepper before cutting it into pieces as well.
Discard the woody stems from your thyme and sage. Roughly chop the thyme leaves (they’re just wee to begin with) and give the sage a nice thin julienne.
Put the bread, peppers and apricots in a large bowl. Toss in the onions and drizzle the rest of the dressing on top. Throw in your herbs, and carefully, gently (so as not to break up your bread) toss the mixture around with your hands until the dressing and apricots are evenly dispersed. After all, it’s the juices and acid from the apricots, combined with the wet dressing, which will moisten your bread and soften the salad.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for at least a generous half hour before serving. After about 15-20 minutes give it another gentle toss to reincorporate the liquids and make sure that everything softens equally.
Always serve the bread salad at room temperature, and it’s happy to become part of a hefty brunch, a light summer lunch, or a side dish for herb grilled chicken or lamb.
The flavors and juice of your ripe apricots seep nicely into the bread, similar to the tomatoes in a traditional Italian panzanella. All of a sudden your crusty, seemingly useless stale bread has found a new and toothsome lease on life. How ’bout them apricots? I have to say, the repurposing of leftovers is really one of my favorite activities.
This panzanella is just as delicious the next day. Just like a stew, this salad gets better before it gets worse. After a day, the bread will be softer, the apricots just a little bit smushier, and the sage will need a bit of a refresh. However, the overnight refrigeration gives each element time to drape itself over it’s partner, whisper in it’s ear and pat it’s butt in a most suggestive way, and before you know it there’s a flavor party that wants you to join in.
Ahh, tastes of summer. So fleeting but so full.