Winter salad with roasted cranberry vinaigrette

I know it may seem a little odd to post a recipe for salad on Christmas Day. This is, after all, for those who celebrate Christmas, traditionally a day of heavy, indulgent food. It is about mashed potatoes, and standing rib roast, or lamb, or turkey, or well-glazed spiral ham, and pie. It is, as a dear old family friend of ours once declared (though he was talking about Thanksgiving), “not about lettuce!” I would offer in response that, honestly, neither is this salad. It is about the tartness of fruit, the jeweled colors, the crunch of nuts, the funk of the cheese. And sure, it is backed up by crisp cabbage and neutral greens, but really, it’s about a mix of brightness to break up whatever richness the rest of your table is heaving under, topped off by a puckering dressing of pan-roasted cranberries bobbing in balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice, if you prefer) and sweetened just enough with honey or maple syrup.

The dressing here is based on a recipe from PCC Markets. The spiced walnuts are lightly adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe – I’m not including it as part of my recipe since hers is so clear, but I will say that I used mustard powder and garam masala instead of her cumin and coriander, as I thought they would blend better with the rest of my salad ingredients.

Of course you can add or subtract anything you please here. Roasted root vegetables would add heartiness, arugula or radicchio would add peppery bitterness to the greens; pecans or hazelnuts could replace the walnuts as the spiced nut component. Dried cranberries or golden raisins could bolster and sweeten the cranberries from the dressing. If you aren’t a fan of blue cheese, a crumbled chevre would be a nice replacement.

Whatever beautiful additions or changes you make, be sure to toss it with the dressing at the very last minute – or serve the salad undressed and the vinaigrette in a small dish on the side – as the balsamic instantly sullies the brightness of the apples and radishes. And do serve the dressing with a spoon, so the burst cranberries can be fished out and liberally distributed. And whatever you’re eating this season, I hope it is delicious, and just what you wanted, and that it brings you joy. Merry Christmas.

Winter Salad with Roasted Cranberry Vinaigrette
Serves 6-8 as a side salad
20-30 minutes
For roasted cranberry vinaigrette:
½ cup fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (plus more to taste, if needed)
1 tablespoon water
¼ cup balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
For salad:
5 cups mixed greens, such as spinach, romaine, or butter lettuce
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
5-6 radishes, topped and tailed, thinly sliced into discs
14 ounce can drained mandarin orange segments (or fresh segments from 3-4 mandarin oranges)
½ cup crumbed gorgonzola or other blue cheese
½ cup spiced walnuts (see above for a link to Martha Stewart’s recipe)
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 green apple, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
1 avocado, halved, pitted, and cut into cubes

 

  • To make the dressing, heat the cranberries, the 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup, and the tablespoon of water in a skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl or stir occasionally until the cranberries pop, 5-6 minutes.
  • While the cranberries are cooking, whisk together the mustard, balsamic or lemon juice, and olive oil in a glass measuring cup or in the container you’ll be serving the dressing from. Plop in the cranberries and their collected liquid after they have all popped, whisk well, and season to taste with salt and pepper. If the dressing seems too tart you can add more honey or maple syrup, but remember it will taste diluted once it is distributed over the salad. Set aside to cool before serving.
  • While the dressing cools, assemble the salad: toss the greens and the cabbage in a large bowl. Add the radish, the mandarin segments, the cheese, the spiced walnuts, and the pomegranate seeds.
  • Just before serving, prep and add the apple and the avocado (you want to wait till the last minute for this so they don’t brown). Toss, if desired, or serve untossed so diners can see all of the bright components.
  • Add the dressing at the last minute, or serve alongside so diners can add their own dressing as they serve themselves.
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Autumn Bisque, now with post and recipe!

I promised you a recipe when I was feeling a bit better, and suddenly a week slid by! It’s not that I wasn’t feeling better (though suspected food poisoning that requires two days – TWO! Two entire days! – home from work does take a while to recover from); it’s just that the end-of-semester panic that seems to make many of my students momentarily forget how to write seemed to strike me too. The words dulled and tripped and, in the face of multiple fires breathing their way up and down Southern California and all the other apocalyptic promises of the impending end of the year, chose to stay inside, thank-you-very-much.

But it’s time to shed that cocoon and step back out, and besides, this soup, with its medley of root vegetables, apple for sweet tartness, and luxurious quantities of cream, is all the velvet goodness a winter table requires. Its inspiration comes from a gorgeous bowl at my sister’s wedding last fall – a soup so rich and luxe and flavorful it was practically a down comforter. I knew it had root vegetables in it, I knew it had cream and herbs, maybe butternut squash, maybe sweet potato… so I wrote to the catering director at the venue and got into a very silly standoff: I wanted an email with a recipe, she wanted me to call (during HER business hours, east coast time – didn’t she know I was at work too? Didn’t she know I abhor phone calls?!) so she could tell me how she makes it, which sounded more like procedure than like an ingredient list with quantities. This went back and forth for a week, with me refusing to call and her refusing to provide a recipe, and finally I just gave up. Ten months later, the time to recreate the soup arrived, and I had only my muted memories from a night soaked in champagne and joy to go on.

To that end, I have no idea how close this is to the original. I picked sweet potatoes, parsnips, and celery root for an intriguing background flavor – you could change up the vegetable choices and use winter squash, or carrots, or even rutabagas. I suspect the venue’s version had even more cream, and I don’t think it included the spritz of nutmeg I added (mostly for looks, but we liked the flavor of it too), but there’s something about pouring in over a cup of heavy whipping cream and watching the contents of the pot go from bright orange to decidedly pale gold that makes a home cook’s arteries start whispering threats. I also don’t think the venue added a last minute slug of irish whiskey, but I’d recommend that you do, since just that little bit somehow rounds out the flavor in a way nothing else could.

What I do know is: this is cozy. It’s smooth, and rich, and pleasantly filling, and would be perfect with a bright, citrus-spiked salad full of radishes and pomegranate seeds and bitter lettuces.* And a thick wedge of bread to round things out. Maybe this one. And it leaves me lacking only one soup, with three weeks to go, to make this project complete.

* wow, that sounds good, doesn’t it? Want one next week? I’ll see what I can do…

Autumn Bisque
Makes 10-12 first course servings; about 6 main course servings
About an hour
4-6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium white onion, diced
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups peeled and diced celery root
2 cups peeled and diced sweet potato
2 cups peeled and diced parsnips
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and diced
3 sprigs fresh thyme (plus more to serve, if desired)
1 sprig fresh sage (4-5 leaves)
1 bay leaf
1½ cups heavy cream
1-2 ounces whiskey, brandy, or marsala, optional
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
sprinkle of nutmeg, to serve

 

  • Set the oven temperature to 350F. In a small, oven-safe bowl, drizzle the garlic cloves with a little bit of olive oil, some salt and some pepper. Top tightly with aluminum foil and stow in the oven until the garlic smells sweet, 20-25 minutes. There’s no need to wait for the oven to preheat.
  • While the garlic is roasting, melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook gently with 2 pinches of salt until the onions are tender and slightly translucent, but not browned. This is called sweating, and should take 8-10 minutes, during which time you can peel and dice the other vegetables.
  • With the onions softened, pour in the stock, then dump in the diced celery root, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and apple. Stir in the thyme, sage, and bay leaf, then raise the heat, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.
  • Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the soup just at a simmer until the vegetables are fork-tender: easily speared but not disintegrating; about 30 minutes. The apple will be softer than the others; the celery root will likely take the longest.
  • When the vegetable chunks are tender, remove from heat and add the roasted garlic – once it has cooled a bit from its time in the oven, just squeeze the cloves right out of their skins, and straight into the soup. Then, very carefully and working in batches, relocate the soup to a blender and blend until very, very smooth. Hot liquids can expand rapidly in the blender, causing small “explosions,” so leave some room in the top, leave a space with the lid for air to escape, and consider covering the top with a thick kitchen towel just in case.
  • Transfer the smooth soup back to the pot. If you’re feeling especially fussy, you could try straining it first. I didn’t, but if you do, let me know how it goes!
  • Back in the pot, stir in the heavy cream and the alcohol, if using, and the salt. Start with 1 teaspoon, taste, then add more if you feel the soup needs it. Return to low heat until warmed through.
  • To serve, ladle into bowls, dust lightly with nutmeg, and top with a sprig of thyme if you’re feeling fancy.

Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.

 

Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve

 

  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.

Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho

I would wager a guess that Spain’s two best-known dishes, at least for Americans, are paella and gazpacho. While I see the value in both for late summer, this weekend the temperature in Southern California – and therefore in our living room – skyrocketed uncomfortably, and the idea of cooking anything felt like a death sentence. We turned, therefore, to the option least likely to wilt us further.

Even then, the idea of venturing into the kitchen – away from a trio of fans all blowing directly on me – to chop up a few vegetables before letting my blender do the bulk of the work was oppressive. Don’t let that stop you, though, because having a big bowl of this in your refrigerator is worth it. Gazpacho is, as I always think of it, the Spanish, blended, soup version of the Italian classic panzanella salad. Traditionally it always includes bread and olive oil along with the tomatoes, producing a lovely smooth, emulsified bowl that chopped vegetables can be floated into.

My mom’s version, which we’re having with few adjustments, doesn’t include the traditional bread component. She adds red wine vinegar and a little chicken broth to the vegetables and the olive oil, and always serves hers up cold, with a dollop of sour cream on top that can be dipped into with every spoonful, or swirled through the entire bowl, for a little extra richness. Of course you can leave off the sour cream and use vegetable broth instead, for a vegan option.

In addition to being simple, and cold, and raw, this soup keeps well; its flavors mingle over a night or two as it sits in your fridge, and it requires only a quick stir to bring it back together (it doesn’t have any emulsifying components, so after a long chill the olive oil will pool on the surface a bit which can look unappealing). One summer, I remember Mom keeping a massive tureen of it in the fridge for a few weeks, replenishing the base and adding more chopped vegetables as needed.

Aside from the indolent bother of rising from whatever surface you’re plastered to, the only troublesome complication of this soup is that it really does need to chill for a few hours before you eat it. Not only is it better served cold (some people like it at room temperature but they are wrong I obviously have preferences); the time in the fridge allows the flavors to meld, mellowing the astringency of the raw onion and the vinegar. Somehow the two acids – vinegar and tomato – harmonize as they chill, resulting in a soup that is bright but not overwhelming, and bolstered by the more neutral flavors of the other vegetables. Aside from the tomato, which softens as it sits, the vegetables retain crunch and a bowlful feels light and refreshing, which means, perhaps to the dismay of your dining partners, they will regain just enough energy to wash up afterwards.

Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho
Serves 6
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
3 large tomatoes
1 bell pepper (Mom uses green; I prefer red)
1 bunch green onions, root tips removed, or 1 small red onion, or 1 large shallot
1 large English cucumber
3 cups tomato juice or low sodium V8
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
¾ cup vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
optional garnishes: sour cream or greek yogurt, hot sauce, chives, dill

 

  • Roughly chop 1½ of the tomatoes, half of the cucumber, and half of the bell pepper. Place these into a blender. Add the white bulbs and pale green portions of the green onion stalks, if using, or half the onion or shallot, roughly chopped. Pour in the 3 cups of tomato juice and blend until smooth.
  • Chop the remaining tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper into bite-size pieces, or to your liking (I like a bit smaller than bite-sized). Thinly slice the remaining green onions, or dice the remaining onion or shallot, if using. Combine these and the blended liquid in a large bowl.
  • Stir in the red wine vinegar, the olive oil, and the broth. Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. If desired, chill the bowls or glasses you will use as well.
  • Just before serving, taste the soup for seasoning again and adjust as needed – I found I wanted a tiny bit more salt. Following in Mom’s footsteps, I like to top mine with a good dollop of sour cream. You could use greek yogurt instead, and a sprinkle of soft herbs like chives or dill, or a few splashes of hot sauce, would not be amiss. Fresh, crusty bread – perhaps grilled and rubbed with garlic – is a perfect accompaniment.

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Midori Fridge Pickles

As both this site and my instagram feed will prove, I’m a big fan of refrigerator pickles. Really, I’m a fan of pickles in general, and have been since childhood, up to and including my Nana’s pickled beets, which marked not only my willingness to eat almost anything, but also one of the first instances in which I became aware that my parents were not above lying to me. One of the few foods I would NOT eat, at the time of my affection for the aforementioned pickled beets, was onion, in any form. Nana’s beets, though, included onions – thinly sliced, limp circles dyed brilliant purple. My parents, in their wisdom, played on my extreme gullibility and, when asked what those other things in the jar were, those clearly not beet things, told me they were “string beets.” I was then quite content to eat them.*

ANYWAY, canny parental treachery aside: fridge pickles! Vinegar, salt, sugar, dried or fresh herbs and spices, brought to a boil, poured over a thinly sliced vegetable of your choice that has been packed into a sealable container. Refrigerate for a few days, and presto! You have a perfect sandwich topper, a bright sourness to add to salads, or something homemade to serve alongside a cheese platter and impress whoever is happy hour-ing with you. I change up the kind of vinegar I use, and I like to play with what flavoring additives I use – I’ve tried everything from cardamom to fennel, but I find I like black mustard seeds the best (though I recently finished off some carrots pickled with dill, coriander, and celery seeds that were fantastic). They add a little bit of floral spiciness to the brew, but at the same time they also get pickled by the hot vinegar and become surprising little flavor bombs I eat right along with whatever vegetable they are accenting.

This particular batch arose, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, thanks to an overcrowded liquor cabinet (I mean, it’s not a very big cabinet, but still). Between a few essentials, N’s growing collection of scotch, and some red wines of mysterious origin, the bright green elixir in the mottled glass bottle that featured in my go-to college drink just sort of got pushed out. I realized I hadn’t used it in years. Aside from a syrupy cocktail, which I wasn’t really excited about, what could I do with it?

I’m not quite sure how I made the connection, but it made me think of Bobby Flay’s pickled red onions. Lately I’ve gotten hooked on his Food Network show “Beat Bobby Flay,” which requires contestants to face off against him with their own best dish, which they’ve perfected and he only learns about in the moment. He usually wins anyway. A favorite tactic of his, no matter what the dish, is to pickle red onions with a combination of red wine vinegar and grenadine. This makes a lot of sense – the syrup contributes sweetness to the pickling solution and gives the onions a brilliant color. Plus, then he doesn’t have to wait for the sugar in his pickling solution to dissolve. Maybe, I reasoned, a combination of Midori and rice vinegar would do the same!

I settled on cucumbers thanks to the cucumber-melon combination so popular in hand soaps and lotions, but added a few slivers of red onion as well for interest. Rice vinegar, with its tang, seemed like a good pairing for the melon liqueur, and I settled on coriander as well as my favorite mustard seeds for additional flavorings. I’d hoped the green of the liqueur would transfer to my vegetables, resulting in neon green dyed cucumbers, but no such luck. The red color from the onions was leached away, but the cucumbers’ color remained about the same. Despite that minor disappointment, the pickles have a subtle but very pleasing melon sweetness a few days in – there’s a complexity here you wouldn’t have if you had just used sugar and vinegar in the mixture. The cucumbers stay crunchy, too, which is perfect. Though above I’ve listed some more sophisticated ways you can eat these, my preference is honestly just a straight-from-the-jar snack, usually while poised just inside the refrigerator door while I look around for what dinner will be. We also had them on salmon sandwiches, a crunch and sweetness to contrast the heat of wasabi mayo spread liberally over a toasted bun.

* not to be outdone, my dad’s oldest sister, whose kids also liked pickled beets but not onions, told their oldest that those purple strings were “munions” and were also believed.

 

Midori Fridge Pickles
Makes ½ cup pickling liquid for about ½ a large cucumber
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 days resting time
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup Midori or other melon liqueur
1½ teaspoons salt
enough thin slices of cucumber to tightly pack a 6 ounce jar – for me, this was about ½ of a large cucumber
a few thin slices of red onion, if desired
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole black or yellow mustard seeds

 

  • In a small pot, bring the vinegar, Midori, and salt to a rolling boil. While you wait, pack the cucumbers, onions, and whole spices into a small jar with a lid that closes tightly.
  • When the liquid reaches a boil, stir briefly to dissolve the salt, then pour carefully over the vegetables to fill the jar. Put the lid on tightly, shake the jar to distribute (careful; if the lid isn’t on tightly, hot vinegar can seep out!), and store in the fridge for at least 2 days, shaking occasionally to distribute liquid and spices.
  • After at least 2 days, or when the cucumbers have soured to your liking, consume as desired!

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Panzanella Toasts

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.

Panzanella Toasts
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.