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Salad or Swamp
Somewhere in the online ether as well as in some of my Italian cookbooks (it’s not always the internet that spreads vague information), I read that the Italian salad, Panzanella, was an excellent answer to stale bread. Eureka! Using that reasoning, added to my squirrel complex, which is married to my waste-not-want-not upbringing, I was able to transform a troublesome relationship into a grand opportunity. I had made various iterations of Panzanella using recipes or techniques found both on my screen and in books. The salad itself existed as a dish as early as the 16th century. Notably, the painter Bronzino waxed poetically about it. He is, however, more famous for his paintings than for his culinary expertise, so I’m not sure how much weight was given to his endorsement.
The meaning of “panzanella” has been described as a “little swamp” and also as a combination of the Italian word for bread – pane – and zanella, the term for a soup or salad bowl. I had always followed the dictum of soaking the bread and then squeezing it out so that it had the appearance of a couscous-like crumb. And I never removed the crusts. To be honest, all those panzanellas had a somewhat spongy and lackluster taste on the second day. This was okay with me, although not great, but my reluctant salad eater’s view was less kind.
A Different Approach
One day this summer, while reading through one of my treasured cookbooks (meaning the cover is falling off and pages are splattered) from Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, Cucina Fresca – Italian food simply prepared and served cold or at room temperature, I discovered a completely different version of this salad.
I had bought a delicious loaf of sourdough bread from Open Hand Pasta & Provisions and had used only a few slices. The next day, it was dry but not stale. On a whim, I decided to make their version. What a difference! I learned that dried bread and stale bread are not the same.To quote an article in Serious Eats:
Drying bread is a matter of extracting moisture through evaporation—the crumb’s structure remains intact, but it becomes stiffer and crisper thanks to all that moisture loss. Staling, on the other hand, encourages the migration of moisture from swollen starch granules into airy pockets within the bread. Those starch molecules then recrystallize, yielding a texture that’s tough rather than cracker-y. Worse, that moisture often stays trapped inside the bread’s structure, for a loaf that’s moist and stale at the same time. The result? Leathery, chewy bread.
The authors write further that: This peasant specialty from Tuscany requires above all good bread. The bread traditionally used is a large round, coarse loaf baked in a brick oven. A loaf of French or Italian bread of high quality is an acceptable substitute. Their recipe calls for removing the crust and slicing the bread, then layering the slices between the vegetables and dressing.
After following the recipe exactly – and it produced a delicious salad – we went a little rogue and decided we actually preferred cutting the bread into rough 1/2 inch (1.5cm) cubes rather than having the slices layered with the dressing and vegetables. I also toasted the bread slightly in an a 275F oven for about 20 minutes. The cubed bread should havea very pale gold color. It’s a great side dish for grilled meat. The leftover salad was good for two days when covered with a plate or cling wrap. I will never again use just any old stale bread for this dish.
Also, like Jasper White’s Lobster Roll, the inclusion of diced cucumbers (which are also peeled and cored) makes a difference. Two final notes on making this salad: I think that salted capers are far superior to the small ones preserved in vinegar. My favorite brand still remains the one produced by Moulins Mahjoub in Tunisia. And I don’t think you can find a better red wine vinegar than the one from Martin Pouret. That said, I have used Keepwell’s Tomato Vinegar mixed half and half with the Pouret Red Wine Vinegar with wonderful results. Tear some basil leaves into the salad before serving.
- 1/2 loaf (4 cups or about a ltr) day old country bread, or French or Italian bread
- 2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 1-2 tablespoons salted dried capers, soaked in water for 15 minutes - my addition to their listing of capers.
- 1/2 cup (119ml)fruity olive oil
- 1/4 cup (60ml) red wine vinegar
- 3 cucumbers, peeled, halved, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 1/2 small red onion peeled, and thinly sliced - I diced the slices.
- 1 bell pepper, red or yellow, cored, seeded and cut lengthwise into thin strips - I cut these strips into dice as well.
- Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- Cut the bread into 1/2 inch thick slickes and remove the crusts, then set aside. - I cut the slices into 1/2 inch (1.5cm) cubes and toasted them at 275F for 20 minutes.
- Mix together the tomatoes, capers, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
- In a wide shallow bowl or platter make a layer of the bread slices
- Scatter some of the cucumbers, onions and bell pepper pieces over the bread.
- Pour a ladleful of the tomato mixture over the bread.
- Continute layering until all the ingredients are used up, ending with the vegetables and the tomato mixture.
- Set the dish aside at room temperature or in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
- It is important for the bread to absorb the liquid from the vegetable and tomato mixture.
- If the dish seems too dry, sprinkle on more oil and vinegar.
- Panzanella can be made a day ahead.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.