- Servings: 4.
Panzanella is an Italian salad made with cubes of bread and fresh tomatoes and chopped vegetables. The dish was invented as a "poor man's dinner," as Marcella Hazan writes in The Classic Italian Cookbook, using two or three-day-old bread plus a robust oil and vinegar dressing.
In the classic recipe for panzanella, large cubes of stale Tuscan bread -- characterized by its solid body, fine crumb, and hearty flavor -- is first soaked in water, then squeezed of any excess moisture, and added to a salad of chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, red onion, and cucumbers. This mixture is tossed with dressing made of olive oil, red wine vinegar, capers and anchovies. The point of soaking the bread first is to soften its stale toughness but also to keep it from absorbing all the dressing, leaving none to flavor the other ingredients.
To get the best results from this classic water-soaking technique, it's important that the bread be full flavored and hearty to begin with, such as a sour dough or country-style white bread. If it's not already stale, you can cut the bread into cubes earlier in the day and spread them on a sheet pan to dry out in time to make the salad for dinner.
But if you don't have great bread or one well suited for this salad (e.g., your only option is a stale baguette or white Pullman loaf), you can change the recipe by substituting large pieces of fried bread for the water-soaked cubes.
Peel the tomatoes by submerging them into a pan of gently boiling water for about 10 seconds. Transfer them immediately to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Use a paring knife to remove the skins, which should slip off easily.
- 12 ounces (1 loaf) good country-style stale white bread, e.g., ciabatta, sour dough, pugliese, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes, to make about 4 cups of cubes OR -- a large piece of white bread cut into four 1-inch slices
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 to 6 ripe tomatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces, to make about 4 cups
- 1 to 2 red or orange bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces, to make about 2 cups
- 1 seedless cucumber or 2 or 3 kirbies, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces, to make about 2 cups
- 1/2 medium red onion, peeled and finely diced, to make about 1/2 cup
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed and drained
- 2 anchovy fillets, finely chopped into a paste or else 2 teaspoons anchovy paste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- If using the stale cubes, place them in a large bowl and pour 2 cups of cool water over the cubes to soak them. Once the water has been absorbed, use your (clean) hands to gently wring out any excess water. Put the dampened bread cubes aside until you're ready to assemble the salad.
- If you are instead going to make fried croutons, cut four slices of bread about 3/4-inch thick, one for each serving. Place the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and gently sauté to flavor the oil. When the garlic becomes golden brown, remove it from the pan and raise the heat to medium high. Add the bread to the hot oil and sauté on both sides until brown and crispy. Remove it to a plate lined with paper towels to drain any excess oil.
- Begin by making the dressing in a small mixing bowl. Combine the red wine vinegar, minced anchovies, capers, a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper. Use a fork to stir until the anchovies and salt have combined with the vinegar. While continuing to stir, add the olive oil and mix until emulsified.
- If using the cubes of stale bread that have been moistened -- Add these to a large salad bowl. Add the tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumbers, and red onion. Pour the dressing over the bread and vegetable mixture. Gently toss. Even though you soaked the bread it will still absorb much of the dressing. Let the mixed salad sit for at least a half-hour before serving (or up to 2 hours) so that the flavors combine.
- If using the fried croutons -- Assemble the salad by combining the tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and red onion in a salad bowl. Drizzle about half of the dressing over the vegetables and toss, adding more dressing depending on the size of the salad and your taste. Serve immediately, placing a single large crouton on each individual plate.
I love these fried croutons so much I make at least twice as many and pass the extras at the table. Because of the oil they really don't keep well and get soggy so only make as many as you think will be eaten with the salad.