Ellen Cooks: Panzanella

Please welcome guest author Ellen Simpson of “Ellen Cooks.”
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I first learned of Panzanella, an Italian bread salad, from my Uncle Bob. My mother’s garden was overrun with tomatoes, and we had been devouring tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches for weeks.  Bob, having arrived from L.A. in time for the thickest, most sweltering days of August, could only manage enthusiasm for one thing: panzanella. He had read about it in one of his favorite Italian cookbooks and was determined to give it a try. I was in my early 20s, living at home with my parents for the summer, and the idea of a salad built around soggy bread sounded revolting. Of course, Bob would correct me by saying, “its not soggy bread, my dear niece, it is bread that has already absorbed all the juices that we would otherwise be sopping up anyway.”  I took one bite and fell in love. And he’s right.  The bread in a panzanella shouldn’t be soggy at all. The bread should still hold its form, but be so laden with tomato juice and olive oil that the juices burst in your mouth when you take a bite. It’s a rustic dish that has no rules. Just add what you like. My family tosses the bread with grilled peppers, eggplant, onions, and squash. Olives, basil, and anchovies round it out. 

The genius of a panzanella is that it is the ultimate Clean Out the Fridge meal. Day old bread, veggies left hanging around the bottom drawers, the last few olives and capers in a jar. If planned right, you can have a cleared out fridge and a delicious dinner. Okay, in reality, that’s never happened for me, but a girl can dream…

Cut day old bread (ciabatta, baguette, miche) into 1 inch cubes. If you don’t have day old bread you can cheat by cutting the bread into the cubes and sticking them in the oven at a low temperature until the cubes of bread start to dry out.

Squeeze out the juice of  5 large tomatoes into a mixing bowl, and then add extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, to taste. Add a tablespoon of minced garlic to the juice mixture.

Slice, oil, and grill your vegetables.

Take a handful of the bread cubes and dunk them into the tomato juice concoction. Make sure all the cubes have a chance to soak up some of the juice, but remove them from the juice before they get soggy. Place them into a salad bowl. Repeat this step until either all the bread is gone, or all the juice is gone. Top the tomato-soaked bread with the grilled vegetables, black olives, capers, anchovies, and fresh basil. Done!

Ellen lives in Brooklyn with her husband John, who will eat anything. She works at Buttermilk Channel Restaurant and recently received an advanced certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.