Everyone has bread that has gone stale or become too dry before it’s all used. Real bread, without additives, dries and becomes stale within a few days. Don’t toss it out! You can make breadcrumbs, bread pudding and French toast out of your dry bread, or you can start saving it for local tomato season and make Panzanella salad.
This Tuscan bread salad is a delicious way to utilize stale or fresh bread along with the bounty of produce we have available in mid-summer. Tomatoes are a must, but everything growing in the garden is fair game to use. We are lucky to have such an abundance of local heirloom tomatoes and other summertime vegetables. Add a little vinegar and olive oil and you are ready to roll.
The bread for this salad does not have to be rock hard. In fact, even if you keep your bread purchase aligned with your bread consumption you can still make this Panzanella with fresh bread. Traditionally, the bread would be dry and not need any additional heat to crisp. The addition of butter and seasoning helps the bread retain its crisp texture after mixing with dressing and tomatoes. Think of the bread in this salad as large, irregularly shaped croutons. Butter (or olive oil) helps keep them crisp, while acting as a transport for the seasoning to penetrate the bread. Coat the bread with butter/olive oil and heat in the oven to prepare for the salad. You could toast the bread a day or two in advance to dry it out, but I find it is best when tossed with butter or oil and baked the same day you make the salad.
I like to use white balsamic in the dressing, but any vinegar will work. If you are using vinegar that is a little harsh or acidic, you may need to add a little sugar to help balance the dressing. Start with garlic and sliced onion, and use the vinegar and oil to mellow the onion while making the dressing. The dressing is pretty simple; just pour it in. There is no whisking involved. Simply pour the vinegar and oil over the garlic and onion, season and toss. The acid in the vinegar breaks down the onion, making them milder. You can make the dressing the day before to give it a more intense flavor.
Tomatoes, basil, onions, olives, cucumber, roasted pepper … whatever you can find in season at the market or in your garden will work in this salad. You can prepare the vegetables beforehand: fine dice them and place in the refrigerator for a day. You can finish with the basil and bread when you are ready to serve. Fresh mozzarella is a great addition to the salad, taking it from side status to the main dish.
Serves 4 to 6
1 large ciabatta or Italian loaf, torn into large chunks
¼ pound butter (1 stick)
Salt and pepper as needed
1 red onion, sliced
1 clove of garlic, pasted
2 ounces vinegar (white or regular balsamic, white wine or red wine)
4 to 6 ounces olive oil
1½ pounds tomatoes, large diced
10 to 15 basil leaves
½ to ¾ pound fresh mozzarella, diced
Other diced vegetables, as desired (suggestions follow)
Rip bread into large chunks. If bread is not crisp enough, or stale enough, at the outset, bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes to dry. This will allow the butter to soak into the bread. Melt butter and toss with bread chunks, salt and pepper. Place onto a sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 20 minutes, until extremely crisp. Cool slightly.
While bread is baking, slice and dice the vegetables and other salad ingredients. Mix onion, garlic, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper together in a bowl and reserve for dressing. Mix tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and other vegetables together in a separate bowl. Stir in slightly cooled bread chunks with vegetable mixture. Pour onions and dressing over bread and vegetables; season as desired. Serve as a side salad or main dish.
Cucumbers (peel, seed and dice)
Peppers (raw or roasted and peeled)
Corn (cut off the cob and use raw, or roast and cut off the cob)
Beets (roasted, cooled, peeled and diced)
Green beans (blanched and cooled)
Tomatoes (raw or roasted and peeled)
Butternut squash (roasted, peeled and diced)
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.