“You say tomato, and I like tomahto…”
George and Ira Gershwin
Have you gotten your share of ‘tomahtoes’ yet? I haven’t. It is my favorite late summer treat and I can’t seem to get enough of them. Since they are generally lousy the rest of the year, I am making every effort to eat as many as I can now. It is almost as if those off season red orbs in the market are not even the same vegetable (or fruit to be precise). Now that they are in the peak of the season there are a few dishes that show them off better than any others. A BLT is one; so is a Caprese Salad. Panzanella is another. This unassuming salad originated in Tuscany…no doubt invented because some Italian wasn’t about to waste some day old bread because it was a little dry. I thank him or her for for that! Panzanella combines three of my favorite ingredients… tomatoes, basil and bread. For the basic version, day old bread is combined with chopped tomatoes, basil, oil and vinegar to make a hearty rustic salad. There are endless variations and other ingredients that turn up in Panzanella as well. I prefer to keep it simple adding only onions, capers, cucumbers and sometimes cheese. Shaved Parmesan is good and so is fresh mozzarella. Olives, celery, tuna, anchovies and many other possibilities could also round out this versatile dish. The key to this salad (as it is with any simple salad) is to use nothing but the best ingredients you can find. It is only going to be as good as the tomatoes, bread, olive oil and vinegar you use. So far I have been getting plenty of good tomatoes from my neighbors (God bless them) as well as loading up on good heirlooms from my local farmer. For the bread, I have become a little obsessed with Acme ‘Pain au Levain’, my bread of choice lately. For vinegar, I like a good red wine or Champagne vinegar. Balsamic is good as well, but things tend to get a little too dark for me. Fantastic olive oil just goes without saying as does good kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. If you are fresh out of stale bread, you will have to “stale-idify’ some which is easier than it sounds. Hardly anyone follows a recipe when making a salad and I strongly urge you to just start tossing one up and tasting it all along as you go. If you need to see it in black and white, I’ll have a recipe at the bottom of my post. Let’s get started!
We are starting with a fresh loaf of Acme ‘Pain au Levain’. I am using a fresh loaf so it is going to need to be ‘stale-idified’. Cube it and toss it in a little olive oil and bake in a 250°until it is dry, but not toasted. Remember that the cubed bread will expand when it soaks up the dressing so don’t make them too big. Remove and cool.
I am using heirlooms from the local market and a few from my neighbors yard. Cut them into uneven bite size chunks. I am even adding a few cherry tomatoes.
Place the tomatoes and cucumbers in a bowl and toss with capers, sliced onions, basil, vinegar, salt and pepper. I like to do this about 15-20 minutes before tossing the salad. The salt will bring out a lot of juice from the tomatoes, and all the flavors will have a chance to get to know one another.
Just before you are ready to serve, toss the salad with the bread. It is ready to serve once the bread has soaked up some of the dressing.
- 3-4 thick slices of day old rustic bread, cubed
- 2 pounds tomatoes cut into 1-inch chunks
- ¼ cup cucumber, sliced
- ¼ medium size sweet red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons capers
- 5-6 basil leaves, sliced thin (chiffonade)
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 ½ tablespoons Olive oil (another two teaspoons if you are using fresh bread)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- Cut bread into uneven ¾ inch cubes. If you are using fresh bread, toss it with a couple teaspoons of olive oil, place it on a sheet pan and put it in a 250° oven for about 10-15 minutes. Remove and set aside. Combine all the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and let rest for 15-20 minutes. When you are ready to serve, toss in the bread, mix well and serve immediately.
A note from Tim: I could not keep this blog going without the support from my partner Paul. Paul was particularly helpful with his contribution to this post which includes some of the photography. Thank you Paul for all the things you do!