Simple Caprese Bread Salad
We’re getting into the heat of tomato season in Ontario, which means that every day I’m pulling a pound or two from the vines. I keep meaning to set some of the bounty aside for canning or dehydrating, but the lure of fresh, luscious and sun ripened tomatoes picked fresh off the vine is just too much for me. In a few weeks, when I’ve gorged on all the open faced tomato sandwiches and fresh sliced tomato salads that I can ingest without getting chronic and incurable canker sores, maybe I’ll consider canning again. Right now, however, I’m all about playing the red garden violins to their greatest advantage and one of my favorite fresh tomato dishes has got to be Insalata Caprese, layers of juicy tomato with slices of fresh, soft buffalo mozzarella and fresh torn basil leaves.
I am hardly alone in my affections for Caprese salad. A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a girl friend and I asked what she was going to order. Her face tweaked into a contemplative frown and she said, “Gee, I don’t know. Everything looks so good. Oh, but I’ll be starting with the Caprese salad of course.”
“Yes,” she continued. “If I see Caprese salad on the menu I have to get it. I mean, I don’t have a choice. I’m compelled. My strength of will is gone. I’m possessed by a higher power.” She shrugged. “Also, it’s Caprese salad. Even if it’s bad, it’s still really good.”
Ah, Caprese. It’s the crème brulée of the salad world; so common that it’s almost ubiquitous bistro fare, and yet we still can’t get enough.
The love child between Panzanella, a traditional Italian bread and tomato salad that I can’t get enough of, and Caprese, this dish is perfect as a light lunch for our hot, muggy August weather. Besides being quick and almost effortless to make, guaranteed to be delicious when made with juicy summer tomatoes and a nice baguette, this is also cheap and cheerful (especially if your tomatoes are plucked from the garden) and a great way to use up leftover bread. That’s often enough incentive for me!
Simple Caprese Bread Salad
Serves 4 as a meal, or 6 quite modestly
- 1 day old baguette
- 14 oz (~400 g) cocktail bocconcini (~2.5 cups)
- 2.5 lb (~1.25 kg) ripe summer tomatoes *
- small bunch fresh basil (1/2 cup chopped)
- 1 small clove garlic
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
* I love using sweet cherry tomatoes in a bread salad, but whatever is fresh and very ripe is fine. We’ve got 8 types of tomatoes growing in the back yard right now, of which 4 are cherry tomato, so I’ve used a bit of a motley assortment including everything from Roma to Bloody Butcher and back again. If you don’t feel like weighing the tomatoes, this will be about 5-6 cups when chopped.
Drain the mini bocconcini balls and put them in a large mixing bowl. Chop your tomatoes into bite sized pieces and add these to the bowl as well. Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, but a cherry tomato IS bite sized, isn’t it?” That’s true, but all the tomatoes need to actually be cut because the fresh tomato juice will infuse and soften the bread.
Cube the bread into bite sized pieces, each no larger than one inch. Whether the bread is a bit stale or not, I like to toast it in the oven. What can I say except that I find browned bread more attractive and I like the sweet smoky flavor that it adds. More importantly, the toasting finishes drying out the bread because even if it’s dry as a bone, that just means more opportunity to absorb fluids from turgid tomatoes.
When the bread cools, add it to the tomato mixture.
Press a clove of small garlic or pound it into a pulp with the salt. Stir in the oil and slowly drizzle in the balsamic vinegar, whisking constantly.
Pour the dressing evenly on top of the bread and tomatoes, and toss the mixture gently to combine all the ingredients. The best tool to do this is your hands, because you really just want to lift and turn the bread until it is moist, being careful not to crumble or break the toasted pieces.
Set this aside for 30-60 minutes to allow your bread time to rehydrate.
Either chiffonade or coarsely chop the basil and add it to the mix, working it through well so that the herbage (are you surprised that ‘herbage’ is actually a word? Because I sure was) is evenly dispersed.
I like to let a bread salad sit around for a while at room temperature. Panzanella is like a classic cocktail party where everyone starts out brittle and uptight until they soak up some heady libations and start to mingle. By the end of the night Mr. Bread Chunk is loudly bragging to a lazy ball of bocconcini about how somebody’s cherry (tomato) is getting popped tonight, but everything stays pretty mellow….likely from all the herb that got passed around earlier.
The well seasoned and softly chewable bread becomes quite luscious, but the sweetness of those fresh tomatoes will still be the star of the show.
For an easy, lighter and crowd pleasing lunch or small summer dinner, put those tomatoes to use and redefine the meaning of “breaking bread” with your loved ones!