I’ll happily eat green salad every spring day, with a slice of sourdough on the side. By the time the garden’s greens bolt and turn bitter, I’m craving ripe heirloom tomatoes whose juices can soak into cubes of bread.
That, at its essence, is the Mediterranean salad known as panzanella. Bread as an ingredient distinguishes it from other salads, but I consider sweet, juicy tomatoes even more crucial – the salad just tastes flat when made with late-winter produce.
Huge heirloom tomatoes typically release floods of juice, or choose fully ripe cherry varieties for succulent halves that better hold their shape. For bread that absorbs liquid without becoming soggy, I prefer three- or four-day-old Sourdough Cabin Bread. A freshly baked loaf tends to be too soft, so if you need to make panzanella right now (a feeling I completely understand), dry out the slices at 300°F for about 10 minutes in a toaster oven. This works better than actually toasting the bread, which can make it too crisp on the outside with a moist center.
Although you can make Creamy Balsamic Salad Dressing to go on this salad, I typically just let the separate ingredients soak into the bread. I’m especially lazy if I’m eyeballing a portion for one. If you prefer more even flavors in each bite, mix the dressing first, crushing the roasted garlic into the vinegar to help it emulsify when you add the oil.
The other ingredients can vary with what’s fresh when you pluck the tomatoes from their vines. I might replace the olives with some capers, add more sweet pepper, skip the cucumber or mix in the green tops of onions or extra herbs.
Panzanella (Tomato and Bread Salad)
4 thick slices days-old bread (about 3 cups when cubed)
1 cup roughly chopped slicing tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves roasted garlic, minced
1 cup roughly chopped cucumber
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 small sweet pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 cup halved Kalamata olives
1/2 cup cubed mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup fresh basil, slivered
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cut the bread into bite-size cubes and place it in a large bowl. Chop the tomatoes, adding the pieces and any released juice to the bowl. Sprinkle with the vinegar and toss to coat the bread. Sprinkle with the olive oil and roasted garlic; toss again. Let sit while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
After you finish slicing and chopping, add the cucumber, onion, pepper, olives and cheese; toss gently to mix. Sprinkle with the basil, salt and pepper; toss gently again. If desired, set aside for about 30 minutes, until the bread absorbs nearly all of the liquid, before serving.
Julie Laing is a Bigfork-based cookbook author and food blogger at TwiceAsTasty.com.
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