Sharon Jessup Joyce
Our family loves panzanella. It’s a simple summer salad, invented by frugal Italian cooks to use up very ripe tomatoes and stale bread. This is how much we love it: when Olivia and her friend Amanda were in grade 5 or 6, they ate panzanella every day after school.
Of course, I knew the girls’ passion for this particular salad wasn’t a one-afternoon stand, but I didn’t realize how extensive the love affair actually was. I was at work when the girls came home from school. Years later, I learned that every weekday they toasted bread in a little olive oil, diced tomatoes, shredded fresh basil, grated parmesan, and tossed it all with a dressing made from olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh garlic and salt. Just like smart Italian housewives, they adjusted the ingredient ratio based on availability. Sometimes the salad would be bursting with juicy tomato; later in the year, when I wasn’t willing to stock up on supermarket tomatoes made of cardboard, they made do with more bread and parmesan.
What’s the magic to such a simple dish? I think it’s a Cinderella story, where you take a humble but perfect combination of elements, dress perfectly to enhance natural beauty, and present immediately. See, that’s the other important thing to know about this dish: Like Cinderella’s perfection at the ball, panzanella doesn’t last long. You have to enjoy it right after you’ve made it. Eat it the minute you’ve put it together, so some bread cubes are still crunchy, while others have started to absorb the tomato juice and dressing. By the time you finish your second – or third – helping, the remaining bread cubes will be soft with the salad’s flavours, but not mushy. (By the way, the Florentine tradition is to lightly water-soak the stale bread, rather than using fresh cubed and toasted bread. I’m sorry, but on this culinary tradition, the Florentines have got it wrong.)
Nobody at our house has eaten daily panzanella for years, but back when Alysha lived in Ottawa, and had not yet joined the family diaspora, we came close. Every August she came to spend a few days, which usually turned into a week or more. These visits coincided with two very good traditions: hanging around the backyard pool on sunny afternoons, and getting baskets of ripe tomatoes from the market. (I draw a discreet veil over other traditions, which included robust margarita consumption and chick-flick marathons.) Sometimes we made so much panzanella that other dishes intended for that night’s dinner were forgotten, and we just ate multiple servings of our salad course.
Panzanella is a forgiving dish when it comes to proportions, provided the few fresh ingredients are at their best. Cinderella, who came to the ball just when the prince was in wife-finding mode, had perfect timing. And the perfect time for Panzanella is in August, when the licorice scent of the cut basil will fill your kitchen; the tomatoes are red and meaty and just irregularly-shaped enough to show their authentic field origins; and the new crop of garlic is pungent and peppery, but still sweet.
Some recipes call for the addition of diced cucumbers, raw onions, peppers, greens or olives. I’ve invented a version of this salad for Adrian, using roasted onions and red peppers in place of the tomatoes. I even made panzanella for Summer one time, using roasted potato cubes instead of bread, when I didn’t have time to make a non-wheat loaf.
But for me, panzanella will always be the following very simple recipe, the one Alysha and I first made. This quantity serves as a main dish for one person, assuming you can stop at a single serving. Of course, I never have.
Just ask Alysha.
Ingredients (Adjust quantities to suit your tastes and availability of ingredients)
- 1 to 1-1/2 cups diced ripe tomato, in season
- 1 cup oven-toasted bread cubes, tossed with a bit of olive oil – say a teaspoonful at least – and salt; use a coarse, rustic white bread (like Pan Chancho’s pain ordinaire or sourdough)
- ¼ cup grated best parmesan cheese
- 1 small garlic clove, crushed
- A handful of fresh basil leaves – about 2 tablespoons when shredded
- 1-2 tablespoons good to best olive oil (a fruity oil, not a peppery one)
- 1 tablespoon good to best balsamic vinegar
- Cube bread and toss with olive oil and salt. Toast in low oven (300 F) for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Dice tomato (don’t drain juice) and put in salad bowl.
- Add grated parmesan, crushed garlic and shredded basil.
- Mix balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt.
- Add cooled bread cubes to tomato mixture, pour dressing over everything, and mix gently, but thoroughly.
- Grab a fork and start eating.
|Sharon lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she dabbles in the domestic arts and eats very well.|
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