The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.
So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).
There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?
The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.
One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
- About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
- To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
- As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
- To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.