This is a salad that I would happily call the perfect summer salad. It is one that I look forward to making every summer. As I add each beautifully ripe ingredient to a large bowl, I can’t help but feel that the very act of making panzanella is pure summer joy!
Panzanella is a bread salad that is Italian in origin. The most common theory behind its creation is that it was a clever way to use up old, stale bread. Simply combine it with some fresh ingredients from the garden, including tomatoes and their juice, and the next thing you know you have a savoury, filling dish. Panzanella, like so many Italian dishes, is a simple food. Variations of it appear all over Italy and like so many other examples of rustic cuisine, it’s been elevated to a much higher status. I’ve even seen it on restaurant menus for absolutely ridiculous prices, especially when you consider that panzanella costs you next to nothing to make at home. And it’s so much better when you make it yourself.
This salad has also come to be a family favourite because it allows us to enjoy the best of summer flavour without having to turn on the stove or oven. While the awful humidity of July has released its grip on Toronto, it’s still nice to be able to throw some items together in a bowl and end up with an incredible meal.
Each time you make panzanella, it evolves. You’ll find yourself adding new ingredients all the time and eventually, you’ll settle on the version you like best. If you’ve never made panzanella before, I urge you to give it a try. A plate of this salad and that Italian terrace we’ve all been dreaming about will seem to appear that much closer.
Treasured family recipe.
- 6 or 7 slices (1/2-inch thick) of day-old Italian country style bread or day-old focaccia
- 2 medium cucumbers, with skin on and sliced thinly
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled and sliced thinly
- 1 large ripe tomato (to be used to wet the bread)
- 2 large ripe tomatoes cut into small pieces
- 1 yellow bell pepper, julienned
- 1 small red onion, sliced thinly
- 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- sea salt
- freshly cracked black pepper
- handful of fresh basil, torn into pieces
- handful of cherry tomatoes for garnish
- handful of Mediterranean olives for garnish
- Using a toaster oven or the broiler, lightly toast the bread for a minute or two on each side. Remove and let cool. Once cool, cut the bread into 1-inch pieces. Put the bread in a large bowl.
- Take the ripe tomato set aside to wet the bread, cut it in half and squeeze out all the juice (seeds and all) over the bread. Mix the bread so that the juice is evenly distributed.
- Add a teaspoon or two of salt and black pepper to the bread and mix well; set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, parsley and thyme. Add a teaspoon of salt and mix well. Let sit for 5 or 10 minutes. After that time has elapsed, add the vegetables to the bread being sure to also add any juice that’s accumulated at the bottom of the bowl. Mix well.
- In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and then pour the vinaigrette over the bread and vegetables. Mix well. Add the torn basil and garnish with cherry tomatoes and olives. Serve immediately.
Note: This salad serves 4 to 6 people. I like to use a focaccia loaf that I buy from the best bread store in Toronto: Ace Bakery. Toasting the bread ahead of time helps to keep the bread from soaking up too much liquid too quickly. Nonetheless, this salad should be served right away or the bread will become mushy.