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 their 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 and squeezed dry, 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 onion and 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 soaked stale bread traditional version. 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.
How to make 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 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 bowl. Toss with salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Add bread and toss again, ensuring bread is coated with dressing. Let sit for 10 minutes and serve immediately. Plate with additional small basil leaves on top.
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.