Every summer I look forward to that brief window of time during which tomatoes are at their peak, fully-ripened by the sun, juicy and flavorful. The ones that I am talking about ooze when you slice into them, releasing their flavorful juices all over your cutting board. Summer tomatoes are nothing like their winter counterparts, who are deceptively red yet have little to no flavor. Growing up, my favorite way to enjoy summer tomatoes was with fresh mozzarella and basil from the garden. Now, I eagerly anticipate the day that I can make my first Panzanella salad of the summer.
Panzanella salad is a traditional Tuscan peasant dish that employs leftover bread and fresh tomatoes as its base. In my version, I marinade tomatoes in garlic, torn basil, chopped garlic, thin slivers of red onion, good extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, and a generous amount of salt and fresh ground black pepper. I let the tomatoes marinade for at least 30 minutes, and sometimes longer, allowing the tomatoes to macerate and the garlic and basil flavors to fully develop. The remaining ingredients are at the discretion of the cook, but I typically add baby arugula, slices of cucumber, and a generous handful of shaved ricotta salata cheese. All of these ingredients, along with toasted/stale bread, and some more olive oil and vinegar, is added at the end, about 10-15 minutes before sitting down to eat. Although it sounds like a homey salad, it tastes revelatory. The tomato juices and olive oil bleed into the cubes of bread, softening them just slightly so that they are at the same time both soft and crunchy in your mouth. The sweetness of the tomatoes is counteracted by the saltiness of the ricotta salata and the peppery arugula, and the flavors of the garlic and basil linger in your mouth at the end. It makes me salivate just writing about it.
Funnily enough, I was recently in Charleston, South Carolina for a wedding and was lucky enough to score a table at Husk restaurant (recently named by Bon Apetit magazine as the Best New Restaurant in America). The menu changes nightly, and on the night that we went, the chef was making “Fried Cornbread “Panzanella” Salad with Grilled VA Lamb Heart and Sungold Tomato Puree“. It was surprising and delicious, and I loved the chef’s use of leftover cornbread. It reminded me that there are so many ways to play with Panzanella—you could add artichokes, shaved fennel, fresh shell beans, or even grilled shrimp.
Question: Have you ever made Panzanella salad, or ordered it at a restaurant? If so, what are your favorite ingredients to include?
Summer Panzanella Salad
The key to making a good Panzanella salad is to allow the tomatoes enough time to marinade (always at room temperature, not in the fridge!) and to restrain yourself from adding the bread too early, so as to avoid soggy bread. Ricotta salata is a dry Italian, sheep’s-milk cheese that is tangy and salty. Its flavor is somewhat similar to feta, but I recommend using shaved Parmesan cheese as an alternative if you can’t find ricotta salata)
- 1 1b. tomatoes (heirloom or vine-ripened), cut into 1-inch cubes, juices reserved
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
- 1/2 of a red onion, sliced thinly
- 1/2 loaf of country-style bread or baguette cut in cubes (either allowed to sit out to dry, or toasted in the oven at 300F until hard but not colored, approx. 10-15 minutes)
- 3/4 cup fresh basil, torn into small pieces
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (this is the time to break out the good stuff!)
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
- Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
- 1/2 seedless cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and then cut into thin slices
- 12oz. baby arugula
- 1/2 cup shaved ricotta salata cheese (if you can’t find ricotta salata, use shaved Parmesan cheese)
- Combine the tomatoes and their juices, the garlic, basil, red onion, olive oil, and vinegar in a large bowl and toss everything together.
- Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Allow the tomatoes to marinade for approximately 30 minutes, or up to 1 hour.
- 10-15 minutes before serving the salad, add the bread, arugula, cucumber, and cheese to the bowl and toss everything together, adding a few more splashes of olive and vinegar as necessary. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Let stand for 10-14 minutes and serve.