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Bread Salad

August 10, 2011

Could it be I’ve never written a dedicated post about Marcella Hazan’s panzanella salad? It seems impossible, especially since what you are reading right now is my 709th post. But the problem of having so much content is that one looses track of what’s been written.

There is a lot I like about WordPress, but the search function on the platform is terrible. I use Google to find things I know that I wrote some time in the past, and it tells me I’ve only used the word panzanella in five posts. Two of them are in stories about restaurants. In another I simply remark on the dish’s magnificence. There was the one last August when I explained why this was such a great way to enjoy fresh tomatoes:

I made yet another jumbo panzanella salad with obscene quantities of juicy tomatoes and plenty of dried-out bread to ensure not a single drop of precious tomato juice was wasted.

However, just one week after that post comes the final mention of the dish, when I confide, “I still love that panzanella, although honestly it is no longer feeling much like a special treat.”

Well, yesterday we got our first tomatoes of the season from our CSA. We were traveling when the first ones really came in. So with gorgeous tomatoes, sweet red peppers, and a cucumber fresh from Roxbury Farm, I knew it was finally time to revisit that summertime tradition that I once loved so dearly.

Let me tell you how it’s done.

While this recipe comes from Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking, a book that I own and refer to all the time, it is also publicly available on Cooking.com. For the most part, I try to respect copyrighted material and only give you my adaptations to published recipes, thus in some sense making them my own.

Obviously, I’m not a lawyer.

But I’m very excited that you can see Marcella’s entire recipe, including the bit about how to prepare onions for a salad. Given Mrs. Fussy’s predilections against onions, this is a step I’ve always skipped, but really always wanted to try. Perhaps in the future, I will take it on for my salad alone.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it places dishes in context. Here is how Marcella describes the panzanella:

Throughout Central Italy, from Florence down to Rome, the most satisfying of salads is based on that old standby of the ingenious poor, bread and water. Stale bread is moistened, but not drenched, with cold water, the other ingredients of the salad you’ll find below are added, and everything is tossed with olive oil and vinegar. The bread, saturated with the salad’s condiments and juices, dissolves to a grainy consistency like loose, course polenta. Given the right bread – not supermarket white, but gutsy, country bread such as that of Tuscany or Abruzzi – there is no change one can bring to the traditional version that will improve it.

Amen. And I completely agree. But that said, Marcella can be a bit particular. I challenge any home cook to make this salad as directed within the 20 minutes of active time called for in the recipe. I say it’s impossible. Sometimes the secret to making one of her dishes without it driving you completely crazy, is knowing what parts you can skip.

Here’s what I do, when I want to make it faster.

We always have Heidelberg four-ingredient 100% whole wheat bread around. It’s dense and has too much structure for the kids’ peanut butter sandwiches. So I toast and dry out four to five slices in the oven. This is important, because you need the bread to be as absorbent as possible. That means getting out all of the moisture that is baked into the bread.

Peeling the tomatoes makes for a better salad. It totally does. But if you can live with the texture of tomato skins, leaving them on saves a bunch of time. I cut them up right over the bowl with the cubed toast and crumbs, so that not a drop of juice escapes. If there is a less gorgeous tomato, that may go through a food mill to produce a pulp for rehydrating the bread, but sometimes I’ll skip this too. A bit of salt on the tomatoes will help them release their moisture, and if you give them enough time and tossing with the bread, the bread will soften nicely.

When it comes to the dressing, I take no short cuts. I mash my ½ clove of garlic, anchovy filets and capers with the back of a spoon to form an intensely flavored paste. Today I took some license and added a generous amount of sweet Italian red peppers, since that’s what came from the farm. Also instead of red wine vinegar, I added some really lovely sherry vinegar I picked up from Adventure in Food Trading.

One large cucumber was peeled, seeded and diced. And the whole thing was assembled right before sitting down to dinner.

Even skipping steps and taking shortcuts this dish takes a lot of time and dirties plenty of utensils. It could be worse if you chose to clean a food processor and a food mill as well. But it is totally worth it, at least in the beginning of tomato season. Hopefully this year, I’ll know when to say when, and stop making this magnificent dish before it grows tiresome.

And just in case you missed the link to the full recipe before, here it is again.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011 8:04 am

    My parents enjoy this type of dish, but they prefer to use a hard whole wheat biscuit called “frizelli” (which in my research — google — may be Brooklyn slang for something I can’t find the real name of), resulting in a crunchy texture. I always skipped it because I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes, but I can see that, with a good tomato and some good oil, this could delicious.

  2. Alison B. permalink
    August 10, 2011 11:26 am

    I love panzanella, and I’m not quite sure why I haven’t made it lately. (Possibly the fact that it doesn’t quite feel like summer in Berkeley?) Thanks for the reminder, Daniel!

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