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.