Like a broken record, I’m repeating myself. It’s the tomato/onion thing again. Forgive me. I think it’s worth it. This time I’m singing the praises of a recipe that also features day-old bread, and I am always on the search for ways to deliciously use those left over bits.
I’m talking about Panzanella. Have you ever had it? It’s an exquisitely satisfying, embarrassingly simple-to-make bread salad. Serve it up together with some of your favorite cheese and a glass of wine, and your summer lunch just might be done.
After eating it once in a Tuscan restaurant, I felt fairly sure I could reproduce it with no help, but I happened to find a recipe in my own kitchen which made the experience foolproof. It was in the cookbook, Polpo, a collection of recipes from a Venetian restaurant in the United States, where they seem to have held tight to Italian tradition. (It’s such a beautiful book, I’d probably have bought it even if they hadn’t.)
The ingredients are as follows: Left over bread (the recipe calls for 120g which is about enough bread for 4 people), extra virgin olive oil, 1 large red onion, flaky sea salt and black pepper, About 20 tomatoes of various sizes (and I would add types), red win vinegar and a handful of fresh basil.
A couple notes. First, while it is fine for your bread to be stale, it shouldn’t be rock hard. The fresh breads we buy in France and Italy, unless the weather is quite humid, become extremely hard within 24 hours. You be the judge. Feel free to use a mixture of breads. Sourdough, whole wheat, ciabatta, what have you (quite literally). Second, a variety of tomatoes such as those I showed last week, or whatever you have at hand, will work well. In fact, I think this recipe is enhanced by a mix. And those tomatoes that are just about to be too ripe? This is a good home for them.
You’ll want to proceed in a certain order. Preheat your oven to 140 degrees C (285 F). Tear or cut your bread into chunks about 2 cm cubed. Massage a generous glug of olive oil into your bread pieces, then chuck them into the oven to crisp around the edges. Do not let them get too hard. Meanwhile, finely slice your red onion and sprinkle with sea salt. I like to massage it quickly so that the salt begins its magic and the onion slices break into the delicate arcs that will wind their way through the final salad. Allow the onion to sit for about 10 minutes, curing, while you complete the rest of the preparation. The onions will become just slightly limp and more sweet than challenging.
Meanwhile, chop your tomatoes. I had only pomodori pachino, sort of like a large flavor-rich cherry variety, which I chopped into four pieces each. Gently tear your basil leaves and toss them into the tomato along with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. If ten minutes has elapsed, add this to your onions and mix lovingly. The last step is to toss in your crostini (toasted bread pieces). They will absorb the bright acidity of the vinegar and the warmth of the olive oil, but maintain their resistance thanks to the time they’ve spent in the oven. Allow to sit for ten minutes before serving. (Or not, if you can’t wait. I never can.) Glorious!