Bread, reincarnated

I have been eating tomato sandwiches for the better part of two weeks, now. Sometimes with a little fresh mozzarella or basil or cracked pepper but always with olive oil and sea salt on a slice of thick, crusty bread. Of all the strictly summer treats, it has to be my favorite and I’m taking full advantage while I can.

Last week, in my greedy tomato fever, I bought more bread than even I could consume crafting tomato sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it went a little stale. A beautiful baguette past its prime usually ends up in a strata at my house. Eggs whisked with milk and seasonings revive stale bread hunks from their brick-like state quite nicely. Adding cheese and veggies to bubble and brown and mellow in the oven makes for a delicious brunch. But what about all those precious tomatoes sitting on my windowsill? I could cope with stale bread but rotten tomatoes were out of the question.

Is this how panzanella was invented? I tend to think so. Panzanella, or bread salad, in its simplest form appears as cubes of day-old bread mixed with chopped tomatoes and their juices, olive oil, salt and pepper. I have also seen it dressed up with cucumbers, tuna, anchovies or celery. The beauty of this dish is the ability to improvise and add what tastes good or what is fresh at the time. Each time I make it, it is never quite the same with subtle nuances depending on what I have on hand. This round was quite delicious, however, and I figured I should share the wealth of salty, toasty goodness.

A rule of thumb for panzanella made in my kitchen: you must fry, grill or toast the bread! While the bread is meant to sop up the juices of the salad, leaving the chunks uncooked will render lifeless blobs of mush, not unlike the pablam cereal I gummed when I required a booster seat to reach the dining table. Even old bread deserves a second chance, and its best bet lies in wait inside a bottle of fruity olive oil and a hot pan.


My Panzanella (Bread Salad)

Below is the exact recipe I used for my panzanella last week. Although you can really use any kind of tomatoes or other ingredients you have on hand, I do recommend using two different types of tomatoes for a dynamic flavor. The contrast of the tangy red cherry tomatoes and the sweeter, milder yellow tomato was very nice. Take advantage of the variety of heirlooms at hand and mix it up.

1 day-old (or more!) demi-baguette (about 12 inches long)
1 pint large cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 yellow heirloom tomato, chopped
1 medium ball fresh mozzarella, diced (preferably buffalo mozzarella)
1/3 cup chopped kalamata olives (reserve 1 tbs of olive brine)
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup tightly packed basil leaves, chopped
3 tbs red wine vinegar
olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper, to taste

Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes and place in a large bowl. Drizzle about 1/4 cup olive over bread cubes, tossing to coat evenly. Place bread cubes in a large frying pan over medium heat, stirring until they are toasted to a nice golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside in the large bowl.

Place the tomatoes, mozzarella and olives in a small bowl adding the reserved olive brine and mix well. The brine serves in place of salt. If you don’t have any brine left over, you may add a little sea salt, instead.

Empty this mixture onto the bread cubes and add onions and basil. Add vinegar and pepper and toss all ingredients to coat. Test for seasoning. Allow salad to rest at room temperature for at least 25 minutes and toss well before serving for best results.

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