Panzanella: Bread and Tomato Salad
Tomatoes didn’t originally come from Italy, but they’ve certainly made up for lost time. Now it’s hard to think of Italian cuisine without them, from classic dishes, from Pasta all’Arrabiata and Salade Caprese, to Pizza Margherita and Panzanella, a bread and tomato salad that’s one of my favorite things to make, and eat.
This summer salad gets tossed with basil, which boosts its appeal (at least in my book…), as my summer trilogy has traditionally been tomatoes, basil, and fresh corn. But since fresh corn isn’t widely available here, I have to make do with something that is: Bread. And that’s fine by me.
Many, um, interpretations of Panzanella exist, often with toasted bread cubes, which are sometimes tossed in olive oil and garlic before toasting. I like that too. I mean, what’s not to like about tomatoes and toasted bread, with olive oil and garlic? But Panzanella is meant to be made with stale bread that’s crumbled or torn.
There’s no shortage of leftover bread in France (and for people who say, “What’s leftover bread?” I applaud you for being able to eat an entire loaf of bread in one go – although some bread is so good, I agree that it’s hard to stop) as it’s a ritual to get fresh bread daily. I, too, like any excuse to visit a boulangerie, so it’s great to have a way to use up the pain d’hier.
Proof that just because you’re from a country means you follow the rules, some Italian websites veer from tradition and list Dijon mustard as an ingredient in Panzanella. And esteemed cooking teacher and author, Marcella Hazan, used anchovies, garlic, and capers in her Panzanella. And pedants may want to avert your eyes here, but I’ve even read some Italian recipes that say you can “enrich” the salad with shrimp, olives, tuna, beans, or hard-cooked eggs.
One rule that’s hard to follow is that unsalted bread is supposed to be used in Panzanella. I don’t buy unsalted bread – and to be honest, I don’t know even know where to find it – so I use regular levain (sourdough bread.) Like the tomatoes, the quality is the bread is surprisingly important, as is the olive oil and vinegar. As my Italian-based friends say, “Olive oil isn’t just to keep things from sticking to the pan, it’s a flavor.” So give yourself permission to keep a good bottle on hand for drizzling and using on salads.
And spring for good vinegar, too. Marcella Hazan used to get bonkers about that. And I agree. Good vinegar is just a few bucks more than the bottle-shelf stuff, and it makes a world of difference in your salads. Since it’s used by the spoonful, good vinegar is one of the world’s great bargains.
Ideally, you want to make this salad when tomatoes are at their peak. If only “okay” tomatoes are available, you can put the cut pieces in a colander, sprinkle them with a little salt, and let them stand for 15 to 20 minutes, which’ll improve their flavor. When I made this, my Parisian guests politely pushed the raw onions to the sides of their plate, but otherwise, everyone really loved this Panzanella. I was expecting to have leftovers the next day, but that didn’t happen.