Panzanella Does a Caprese

by Kelly on June 12, 2009   

Panzanella along with a grilled gourmet sausage and a couple of serenading piggies

Panzanella along with a grilled gourmet sausage and a couple of serenading piggies

I could call this “True Confessions of a Bread-aholic” because that’s what I am. This is a bread-lover’s dream salad — it’s like stealing everyone’s croutons, or like taking all the bread in the basket to soak up what is on your salad plate. It’s easy to make and only gets better from sitting around.

This is not la nonna’s panzanella, though, I’ll admit that right here. It does a little dance with another of my favorite bread + tomato + olive oil dishes, caprese. The husband and I had the remarkable good fortune to live in Italy for a year (some years ago) and since we were barely more than poor post-college students, we sought out the cheap eats in our home city, Rome. One of our standbys was a little place that specialized in caprese served with huge chunks of ciabatta and vino sfuso (wine right outta the keg). Munch down the little stacks of tomato, fresher than fresh mozzarella and basil and then (alleluiah!) tear off bread hunks to soak up the juices left on the plate — a swirl of green oil, tomato juice, salt, pepper and basil essence. All this while prospective diners loom over you, jealously watching you dab away while staking a claim for your table.

I start thinking about panzanella when the weather gets hot since it is really the perfect summer dish. It’s better to make it in advance, so get it out of the way early and enjoy hanging out by the grill and sipping, well, a Campari if you’re keeping in the Italian spirit(s). Even better if you have home-grown tomatoes.  They’ll shine in panzanella.

The bread co-stars, of course

The bread co-stars, of course

I’ve seen the bread for panzanella treated three different ways. Some cooks soak the stale bread in water, then thoroughly squeeze out the excess. Others simply use stale bread or dry out a fresh loaf, and yet another approach is to toast or saute the bread. I like a bit of tooth so I prefer not to soak it, and I don’t want it too much like a real crouton so I object to outright toasting. The middle road is best for me.

It’s worth it to look for a source for fresh mozzarella, which my cooking/language teacher in Italy called “diet” food. Ha!

Panzanella Does a Caprese | 4 to 6 servings

3/4 of a loaf of rustic Italian bread or ciabatta, about 3/4 pound, preferably stale, 6 generous cups when in chunks
8 medium-sized tomatoes, about 3/4 pound, chopped and juices retained
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/3 cup of olives and their juice
2 tablespoons capers and their juice
6 large basil leaves, chopped
4 whole stems Italian parsley, leaves chopped and stems discarded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:
1 generous tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
Several grinds of black pepper
1 large garlic clove, minced to a paste
5 tablespoons olive oil

Tear the bread into 1-inch pieces. If your bread is very stale, you may need to cut it into chunks. Use a serrated knife for this task. If your bread is fresh, you can dry it out in a 200° oven: tear into pieces, put on a baking sheet, and leave it in the low oven for 40 minutes or so. It should feel dry but not browned.

Very stale bread may to too tough to tear, so use a serrated knife to cut it into chunks

Fresh bread tears easily into pieces

Put the bread chunks in a large bowl. You will end up with about 6 cups, and each cup will be generous, like this:

It's also like 6 big handfuls of the bread chunks

One cup is also like one big handful if you want to leave the measuring cup in the drawer

Add the chopped tomatoes and their juices, mozzarella, onion, olives, and capers.

Add all the juices from the chopped tomatoes

Add all the juices from the chopped tomatoes

Mix all this together — with your hands, preferably — squeezing a little more juice out of the tomatoes as you go.

For the vinaigrette, combine the balsamic vinegar, salt, sugar, pepper, and garlic in a glass or cup.

Here's a pinch of sugar -- this dish is the essense of using your hands and forgetting about the measuring devices

The sugar and salt dissolve quickly in the vinegar

Drizzle in the olive oil, mixing with a fork or a whisk as you go to make an emulsion.

My mini-whisk, which I love for this task, sang its last song the other day, so I'm using a fork

My mini whisk, which I love for this task, sprang a wire the other day, so I'm using a fork

Pour the vinaigrette over the bread mixture, mixing well as you go. Toss again with the chopped basil and parsley. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for at least half an hour or longer. Refrigerate the panzanella if it will sit for much longer than an hour, but it’s best at room temperature so take it out ahead of time. Buon appetito!

Use a big bowl to make it easy to toss

Use a big bowl to make it easy to toss

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

blair July 11, 2012 at 11:35 am

I’m making this recipe Sunday for grilling by the pool! I’ll bring your grill book along too! :) Molto benne!

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