In her book, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”, Marcella Hazan writes “one of the most satisfying salads is based on that old standby of the ingenious poor, bread and water.” In Panzanella or Italian Bread Salad, the bread is saturated with the juices from perfectly ripe fresh tomatoes and tossed with chopped fresh vegetables, olive oil, fragrant basil and vinegar. A simple dish that is immensely comforting, Panzanella recipes vary from family to family, all with one very important ingredient: perfectly ripe tomatoes.
With the cooler temperatures of fall rapidly approaching, I was inspired to make this salad with the last of summer’s basil, a crisp, bright green, seedless cucumber, intensely ripe heirloom tomatoes, fresh garlic, and a sweet onion, all harvested from my brown and fading garden.
A proper bread salad is never prepared with supermarket white wonder bread. Seek out an artisan, Maine made bread; a gutsy, chewy country bread. Trimmed of the crusts, and cut into bite-sized cubes, this bread is traditionally soaked in water, then drained, and tossed with olive oil, vinegar and vegetables.
Instead of water to soften the bread, Hazan recommends passing a nicely ripe tomato through a food mill, and coating and marinating the bread with this sweet, tomato puree while preparing the rest of the salad ingredients. No food mill? Save the juices when chopping the tomatoes, and pour over the cubes.
Hazan also recommends blunting the bite of a chopped raw onion so that it doesn’t overwhelm the sweetness of the tomatoes. Peel the onion, slice it into very thin rings, and soak the slices in a bowl of cold water. Squeeze the rings and release the acid, making the water slightly milky. By changing the water and repeating this several times, the onion flavor becomes pleasingly mellow. This is a good technique that I’ll remember to use more often.
Fresh basil and ripe tomatoes are a natural flavor combination. Parsley, thyme, and mint are also tasty additions to your Bread Salad. Don’t turn up your nose at the anchovies, and give them a try. Of all the ingredients used in Italian cooking, none produces a headier flavor than anchovies.
For supper, we enjoyed Italian Bread Salad with local burgers cooked on the grill and fresh cauliflower. The remaining salad I combined with some white beans to pack in the lunchbox. Meaty, intensely flavored and delicious, this “bread and water” dish became one of my favorite meals.
PANZANELLA: BREAD SALAD
- 1 garlic clove chopped
- 3 anchovy fillets finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon capers drained
- ¼ cup sweet bell pepper chopped
- Sea salt
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 2 cups firm good bread, crust trimmed, cut into cubes
- 4 firm ripe tomatoes
- 1 cup cucumber cut into ¼ inch dice
- ½ cup sliced sweet onion soaked in water to remove sharp taste
- ¼ cup fresh basil chiffonade
- Gather your ingredients and tools.
- Slice the onion and soak in a bowl of cold water. Set aside.
- Cut the crust from the bread, cut into cubes, and place in a small bowl.
- Make a tomato puree by passing one tomato through the food mill over the bread. Season with salt and set aside.
- In the bowl of your food processor or using a mortar and pestle, blend the garlic, anchovies and capers into a fine paste. Add the salt, olive oil, and vinegar and combine well. Scrape the mixture into the serving bowl.
- Add the chopped sweet bell pepper to the serving bowl. Drain the water from the onion and add to the bowl. Add the chopped cucumbers and stir well.
- Seed the remaining tomatoes and chop. Add to the bowl.
- Add the bread and the sliced basil*.
- Stir the salad well and season with fresh pepper and more sea salt if needed.