Tastes like summer! That is how I describe the taste of Panzanella salad. You can only have it one time of the year in the summer. You must have tomatoes at their peak, the freshest cucumbers, and basil. Although I wish I could eat it year-round, there is something special about food that you look forward to eating only during a certain time of year at its best.

Watch the live demonstration of the Constrained Gourmet making Panzanella salad at the Napa Farmers Market:

The origins of Panzanella salad are from Tuscany. Traditionally, the constraint was ‘what to do with stale bread.’ The stale bread was soaked in water, squeezed dry, and then added to onions, cucumbers, and basil with olive oil and vinegar. Why waste bread, right?! If you’ve visited Italy, you know that most Tuscan bread is unsalted. There are two theories for this – one is that unsalted bread goes better with salty and spicy dishes and the other is that frugal Tuscans did not want to pay the government salt tax. Either way, unsalted bread takes a little adjustment for Americans. Until the 20th century, Panzanella salad was based on onions, not tomatoes. Whoever thought to add tomatoes is a genius! It’s absolutely delicious with ripe tomatoes and is often referred to now as a tomato and bread salad. The modern Panzanella salad can have additional ingredients, such as arugula/baby lettuces, capers, mozzarella, olives, garlic, and peppers, but the traditional Florentines disapprove of them. I’ve created my own version – California style – with fresh bread that is a little crunchier than the traditional soaked stale bread. I hope you will make it! It’s wonderful as a main course, but you can also add grilled shrimp, chicken, fish, or other meats along with it, or you can serve this as a first course.

I wrote a short fiction story about a woman who makes Panzanella Salad for her husband. I describe their traditional banter about whether the croutons should be cut or torn. My husband and I have the same friendly argument every time we make croutons and I love it.

Video Recipe:

How to make Panzanella salad

Panzanella Salad

Ingredients for the salad
1 pound tomatoes, diced into bite-size pieces
1 small cucumber, seeds removed, thinly sliced (remove peel if using later summer cucumber)
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup basil leaves, torn into pieces
1/2 cup olive oil or as needed
3 tablespoons of white vinegar from Modena or red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Optional additions to the salad: roasted red peppers, capers, anchovies, mozzarella, parsley, lemon juice (instead of vinegar), lettuce, and/or olives.

1 high-quality, chewy, firm, Italian-style bread
4 tablespoons olive oil (or as needed)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
salt, pepper, onion and/or garlic flakes to taste

Cut bread into bite-size pieces and place on a sheet pan. Toss with olive oil and dried herbs. Bake in 325-degree oven until slightly brown, about 10 minutes. Note: be very careful with toasting bread. Oven temperatures can vary, and this can burn very quickly, so keep a close eye on the bread while it’s in the oven. Remove and let cool. Place tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, and basil in a bowl. Toss with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar. Add bread and toss again, ensuring the bread is coated with dressing. Let sit for 10 minutes and serve immediately. Plate with additional small basil leaves on top.

Fresh vegetables are key for Panzanella salad

Fresh vegetables are key for Panzanella salad

You really need fresh summer tomatoes for this recipe. Sometimes, we can now get good tomatoes during the winter that are grown in a greenhouse, but you will need to test them and ensure that they are tasty. If they are frozen in the middle or pale in color, the salad will not have the same taste.

Wine Recommendation: You will need to match the acid level in the tomatoes and vinegar/lemon juice. I recommend a high-acid wine, such as Gavi, a high-quality Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or, if red is your preference, try a Chianti or Barbera.

Gavi for Panzanella salad

Wine pairing for Panzanella salad