As we move into the heart of summer and plump, juicy tomatoes begin to ripen on the vine, I start to crave Panzanella. The simple, rustic salad from central Italy is made with stale bread and ripe tomatoes, epitomizing the classic Italian tradition of using leftover ingredients to create an amazing dish.
The Panzanella bread is soaked in cold water, squeezed dry, and then mixed with other ingredients and dressed with a red wine vinaigrette. You must use high quality bread for this dish—factory processed breads from the grocery store become quite gummy after soaking. A Tuscan-style saltless bread is ideal for this recipe and holds up really well, though most artisan, rough textured, country breads will work just fine.
Traditional Panzanella will always include bread, very ripe, flavorful tomatoes, onions, and fresh herbs. Depending on the region and your own personal taste, you can also include cucumbers, sweet peppers, fresh fennel, greens such as chicory or arugula, and olives. That said, the beauty of Panzanella is in its simplicity, and the key to making it great is to use the very best ingredients you can find. I recently made a version with marinated artichokes, flavorful black olives, and capers.
During the very warm days of summer, I often like to serve Panzanella as a main course for dinner, instead. To give it more body, I add anchovies, tuna, chunks of fresh mozzarella, or boiled eggs. The salad that holds up very well and the flavors improve as it rests, so I often make it at least a few hours prior to serving.
Notes: The key to this salad is to use very dry or stale Italian bread. If you do not have stale bread on hand, I find that cutting the bread into slices and leaving it out to dry overnight works well. For a more rustic look to your salad, you can tear the bread into small pieces, although I cutting it into chunks works just fine for me. When completing the initial soaking of the bread, dip your bread in the water until it is completely wet through and then remove it and immediately squeeze it to remove most of the water. Do not leave the bread in the water too long or it will break apart and not hold up well in the salad.
I have a huge herb garden here in Umbria, and I add fresh herbs to almost all of my dishes for added flavor. Since I like my salads to be as colorful as possible, when making Panzanella I almost always add fresh herbs such as parsley and/or basil, tiny wild arugula leaves, or celery leaves.
I like to use sweet onions and prefer full-flavored olives such as Gaeta, Kalamata, Bella di Cerignola, or Taggiasca olives. In a salad, pitted olives are always preferred. Salted capers do have a more intense flavor than those sold in jars packed in vinegar, but they do need to be soaked well first to ensure they are not too salty in the final product.
This is really a salad that doesn’t require you to measure out your ingredients but I have included a recipe list for you to get started. Generally, I simply mix equal amounts of tomatoes and bread, then add additional ingredients as listed above depending on my mood, what is fresh in my garden, or what I have in my refrigerator at the time.
Deborah Mele 2013
Panzanella Salad with Artichokes, Black Olives, & Capers
- 1 Pound Loaf Day Old Country Style Bread, Cut Into 1-inch Slices
- 1 Pound Ripe Tomatoes Cut Into Chunks
- 1 Large Sweet Onion, Thinly Sliced (About 1 Cup)
- 3 Medium Cloves of Garlic Finely Minced (About 1 Tablespoon)
- 2 Celery Stalks, Finely Chopped (About 3/4 Cup)
- 1/2 Cup Chopped Fresh Celery Leaves
- 1 1/2 Cups Chopped Drained Marinated Artichokes
- 1/4 Cups Pitted Olives, Cut In Half
- 3 Tablespoons Chopped Capers
- 1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley Leaves
- 10 Fresh Basil Leaves, Roughly Torn Into Pieces
- 1/4 Cup Red Wine Vinegar
- 1/3 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Kosher Salt And Black Pepper To Taste
- Either cut your bread slices into 1 1/2 inch chunks, or tear into bite sized pieces.
- Fill a large bowl with cool water and dunk the bread into the water just until it is wet through.
- Squeeze the bread with your hand discarding the soaking water and place the bread in a large serving bowl.
- Add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, celery stalks and leaves, artichokes, olives, capers, parsley, and basil in with the bread and lightly toss to mix.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper and then pour over the bread mixture.
- Toss to mix well, season with more salt and pepper if necessary, then serve.