I have to grin a little when I say the word “Panzanella” because it sounds like a fancy word for what I consider to be a ‘poor man’s’ salad.
The original recipe calls for stale bread and was a very clever way to repurpose any leftover bread from previous meals. My dad used to love when my mother made this salad for him. I think it reminded him of his childhood. He grew up during The Depression and I imagine nothing, certainly not stale bread, went to waste in his thrifty Italian household.
This is about as simple as it gets. I think that’s one of the better parts about getting older – I now only have time – and only make time – for the simple things in life that bring me joy. And when you make simple recipes with high quality ingredients, they end up being favorites that you return to again and again.
If you have stale bread around the house, keep it for Panzanella – it can’t be just any bread, though. Don’t try this with Wonder bread or any skimpy sliced bread – It has to be a hearty sourdough or Italian bread that can stand up to this salad, which sits for about an hour before serving. Originally, the bread was actually soaked in vinegar, then squeezed out, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
In this version, the bread keeps its heartiness and absorbs the dressing without getting soggy. Some people let their Panzanella sit for up to four hours – I personally don’t have that type of will power or time, but you could do it if you wanted to. The other good thing about Panzanella is that it travels well. So if you’re going to a potluck, offer to bring the Panzanella and know that you can make it and wait for a few hours before eating.
Finally, to make this a little healthier, I use less olive oil than is used in the traditional recipe. I also opt for Balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar because I believe the sweetness of the balsamic allows for less oil. Sometimes I just use Balsamic alone without any oil, but I want to keep some olive oil in for authenticity.
Total Time: 90 minutes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes (if you need to toast your bread – if you have stale bread, omit the toasting step)
- 1 cucumber cut into half-inch slices and halved. I like to use English cucumbers but you can use the standard cuke. Many people omit the seeds, but I keep them in.
- 4 heirloom tomatoes, chopped into 1 inch squares or grape heirloom tomatoes sliced in half lengthwise
- ½ red onion, thinly sliced
- ½ loaf (about four cups) of stale crusty, hearty Italian bread or sourdough bread cut into 1 inch cubes. If the bread is not stale, heat in the oven at 300 degrees until dry but not toasted, about 15 minutes.
- 1 c. fresh basil, cut into ribbons, or use tiny basil leaves directly from the plant if you have one
½ c. Balsamic vinegar
- 3 T. olive oil
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 2-3 crushed garlic cloves
- Combine vinegar, garlic and oil in a food processor or whisk by hand until thoroughly incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Fill mixing bowl with tomatoes, bread, onion and cucumbers. Add dressing and toss thoroughly making sure bread cubes are coated. Let sit for one hour, mix occasionally to ensure the dressing is being absorbed evenly throughout.
- After one hour, add basil, toss again and serve. This can be eaten as a main salad or a side dish.
Enjoy this hearty Old-World dish by itself or with a bowl of Minestrone or Pasta Fagioli.