If you’re like me, when September rolls around, it’s often a bit of a surprise. How could summer be over already?
I’m always left to wonder why February and March seem to pass so slowly. Nevertheless, for those of us who love the beautiful, fresh produce of summer, farm stands are still overflowing with sweet corn, peppers (especially red ones), eggplant and, of course, tomatoes that taste like tomatoes should.
Italian cooks find innovative ways to use the abundance of late summer tomatoes, from making a simple marinara sauce with nothing more than chopped tomatoes, a little garlic and chopped onion and lots of fresh basil to roasting them with olive oil for a pasta topping that is slightly reminiscent of sun-dried tomatoes. Tomatoes are stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese and find their way into the classic eggplant relish, caponata.
Italian cooks are also known for their reluctance to waste food. Rinds of Parmesan Reggiano cheese are tossed into soups, especially minestrone. Leftover pasta may be used in a pasta torte. And leftover vegetables find their way into fritattas and egg omelets.
But one food that Italian cooks hate most to waste is bread. Leftover crusts are grated and saved for meatballs. Focaccia bread may be cubed, browned in oil, and used as croutons. And the classic papa al pomodoro is no ordinary tomato soup. It is made with summer’s best tomatoes and stale bread.
One of the best-known Italian recipes is panzanella. Panzanella is tomato bread salad. It is best if made this time of year with ripe, red tomatoes whose juices are transformed, along with vinegar, into wonderful vinaigrette. The bread must be good Italian or French bread and, ideally, a day or two old. Panzanella originates from the Tuscan region of Italy and, like so many Italian dishes, probably no two versions of it are exactly alike. Some call for the bread to be soaked in water, while others dictate that the stale bread cubes be first browned in olive oil. The original panzanella recipe was made with unsalted Tuscan bread, which most of us would likely find unsavory.
Some panzanella recipes include peppers, anchovies, olives, mozzarella cheese and capers. I was even able to find one version that calls for polenta cubes instead of bread. But the recipe that follows is classic and easy. Its focus is on wonderful tomatoes and good country bread and tastes very much like summer.
- 2 ripe, red tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces (save a few whole leaves for garnish)
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil (more if needed)
- 3 tablespoons good red wine vinegar
- 6-8 thick slices of good quality Italian or French rustic style bread (stale bread works best!)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- In a bowl, combine the tomatoes, cucumber, onion and torn basil. Drizzle the mixture with the ½-cup olive oil, the vinegar and salt and pepper. Toss gently to evenly coat the vegetables.
- Cut the bread into cubes or tear it into bite-sized pieces. Place half the bread in a wide and shallow bowl and spoon on half of the vegetables.
- Layer on the remaining bread and then the vegetables. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Toss the salad before serving and add more salt and pepper if needed. I like to add a little extra vinegar.
- Garnish with the basil leaves and serve immediately.
You can experiment by adding different ingredients to your panzanella salad. There are so many intriguing vinegars out there these days. I have been having fun with black cherry and pineapple vinegars from Williams-Sonoma, as well as a strawberry balsamic from Olio in Lititz.
This is another one of those classic Italian dishes that absolutely will not work without the best ingredients: good olive oil and vinegar, crusty bread and ripe summer tomatoes. It is a very simple dish that can be made a few hours ahead (but no longer) and paired with grilled chicken, steak or fish.
So hold on to summer a little longer. Save that half-loaf of Italian bread that’s been languishing in your breadbox since last Sunday’s pasta dinner. Grab those tomatoes on your counter that are just a little bit soft. A delicious panzanella salad is waiting.