Panzanella, a Tuscan bread salad, is a great way to use old bread and avoid cooking in hot weather at the same time. And it is so simple to make, too.
- Day old bread (see Notes)
- Fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped
- Red onion, peeled and sliced
- A few fresh basil leaves
- Olive oil
- Wine vinegar, white or red
- Salt and pepper
Take some slices or chunks of stale bread and dunk them in water until they begin to soften. This should not take long. Remove them and squeeze out the water, then shred the bread with your hands into a salad bowl.
Throw in some chopped ripe tomatoes, sliced or chopped red onion and a few basil leaves. Dress your salad in the usual manner, with abundant olive oil, some wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
You can serve panzanella immediately if you like, but it doesn’t mind a wait. In fact, it develops flavor if let it rest for a while, say an hour or two. It can even be made well ahead, in which case you may want to hold off on the vinegar, which can become overpowering, until you are ready to serve.
It is quite common to add some chopped cucumber to the above basic recipe, which I do whenever I have it on hand. It lends a certain brightness to the recipe. Chopped celery can also be a nice addition. In fact, I sometimes like to experiment with panzanella.
Red wine vinegar is usual—remembering that Tuscany is the home of Chianti wines—but personally I prefer to use white wine vinegar which doesn’t ‘stain’ the salad and, to my taste anyway, has a less assertive flavor. A few drops of lemon juice would not be amiss, either. There are also recipes that omit any acid altogether. Some recipes call for you to add the vinegar to the water in which the bread is soaked, rather than as part of the dressing.
Whether you chop your vegetables large or small is also a matter of taste. I vary according to my mood, although I tend to like moderation in all things, so I usually use a ‘medium’ chop. So those of you who like to get fancy, you can use a very fine chop and form the panzanella in a ring mold in individual portions as an antipasto for an elegant summer meal.
The ideal bread would, of course, be Tuscan bread, traditionally the darker pane scuro. But if you don’t happen to live in Tuscany, any good quality, well-structured bread will do the trick. Just make sure it is the kind of bread that will stand up to being soaked, squeezed and shredded without turning into mush. Sandwich bread won’t do—you need the kind of bread that you buy in a whole, unsliced loaf. One good test to see if the bread has adequate structure is to squeeze the loaf when you buy it: if it collapses easily (like Wonder bread) then it won’t work for this dish. The more resistance it gives, the better—well, to a point, of course…
The measurements are really totally up to your taste. I’ve seen the dish made with mostly bread, or with mostly vegetables. This being an old peasant dish, surely the proportions depended entirely on what was on hand at the time you made the dish, and that is what I do, too. A good rule of thumb, however, is that the bread should make up about half the volume of your panzanella.