It’s that time of year, weekends at the lake and lots of company stopping by. For me, that means planning a variety of menus for big buffet style meals. Nothing fancy but plenty of hearty side dishes to complement whatever we are barbequing on the grill. My criteria is nothing that requires baking or roasting in the oven for a long period of time as the cottage is not air conditioned! One of my favorite dishes for such occasions is a Panzanella salad, also known as a Tuscan tomato and bread salad. It goes well with most grilled meats, fish or poultry. It is a good way to add veggies to the menu and is a nice alternative to the usual green salad.
There are several versions of this dish. The 'real' Italian version is the simplest requiring not much more than tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, fresh basil and stale bread dressed in oil and vinegar. What varies most among chefs is the way the bread is used in the recipe. My more 'authentic' Italian cookbooks recommend soaking the bread in water for a few minutes and then squeezing it dry before adding to the tomato mixture. I prefer mine with bread that has a bit more bite. Many chefs suggest frying the bread cubes in either butter or olive oil, or coating the bread with oil before toasting in the oven. If you start with a good bread you don't need to add the butter or oil for extra flavor. I simply toast my bread dry till crisp but not brown. As the bread soaks up the tomato juices from the salad it softens but doesn’t get soggy or mushy, which to me is just right.
My version of this salad is much heartier than most making for a more substantial side dish. I like adding olives, orange and/or yellow peppers and cheese. And, I don’t see why you couldn’t add some blanched green beans as well. The contrasting textures of the cheese and tomatoes against the crisp vegetables and the bite of the bread meld beautifully together in the salad’s oil and vinegar dressing.
The best panzanella starts with sweet, perfectly ripe tomatoes. Homegrown are best, but good Compari varieties, heirloom, grape or sweet cherry will do. Ripe and sweet are a must, as the tomatoes set the flavor base for the overall dish. Next, is using only good artisan-style bread. Any kind will do, such as a French boule, a ciabatta or even a multi-grain baguette; but, probably not any strong flavored bread, and certainly, no commercially packaged sliced bread. Fresh basil is the other must-have ingredient. Add it just before serving to take maximum advantage of its incredible flavor.
The recipe that follows is based on one pint of tomatoes. Amounts of all the ingredients can certainly be adjusted to accommodate the number of people to be served.
1 pint juicy, sweet, ripe tomatoes
1/2 cucumber, unpeeled and cut into quarter slices
½ small yellow pepper cut into ¾ inch square dice
½ small orange pepper cut into ¾ inch square dice
About ¼ c. thinly sliced onions, either red or sweet Vidalia
About 1/3-1/2 c. diced fresh mozzarella cheese
Stale bread cut into 1 inch cubes, about 1 cup
6-8 Kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half
2 T. chopped flat leaf parsley
3 T. fresh basil, chopped or chiffonade
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt to taste
Cut bread into 1 inch cubes. I used a multi-grain ciabatta roll. Toast in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes till crisp but not brown. Remove, let cool and set aside.
Put tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions into a large bowl. Add the chopped cheese and olives. Add all the dressing ingredients and mix together. 10-20 minutes before serving add the bread and toss together to let the bread soften and the tomatoes to become nice and juicy. Right before serving, add the parsley and basil, toss together and serve.