Waverly Root speaks none too fondly of panzanella: "A poor man's lunch," he calls it, "salad dressing on bread, producing a sogginess which accounts for its name (litlle swamp)." Mr. Root and his palate notwithstanding, panzanella is one terrific lunch. Basically a Tuscan bread salad with oil and vinegar, what else it contains depends upon who is doing the cooking. Tuscans call panzanella a cold picnic dish, with the ingredients put together at the last minute, the bread soaked in water at home, the tomatoes and cucumbers simply picked from the vines as needed. But one Roman source describes it as a first course served in large families to fill everyone up before the more expensive second-course dishes are put on the table. Tony May, the owner of Sandro's, Pailio and La Camelia, three Italian restaurants in Manhattan, says the dish is also called pane molle, which means "soft bread."...Earthy and satisfying, panzanella is, at the same time, cool and refreshing. In "The Food of the Western World," Theodora FitzGibbon talks about the anchovies, chilies, basil, garlic and capers it contains by never mentions tomatoes, except as a garnish. Other recipes call for onion, cucumber and celery. On calls for spring onions rather than yellow of red onions. Mr. Fiorti uses both green and red peppers...The proportions vary from cook to cook. Some use vast quantities of olive oil--six ounces to a half pound of bread--while others use only two ounces for a pound of bread. In fact, panzanella is a salad designed to be made with leftover, stale bread and whatever of the other ingredients are available. Italia bread--purists insist it must be Tuscan bread--is also indispensible, though there have been recipes suggesting the substitution of whole-wheat bread or rye bread for those who are not fortunate enough to have easy access to the comactly textured Italian, or even French, country loaves.---"Panzanella, a Salad Perfect for Summer," Marian Burros, De Gustibus column, The New York Times, June 21, 1986 (p. 52)
Marcella Hazan's version of panzanella is pretty classic, although her recipe soaks the bread in pureed tomatoes, not in water, and she flavors it with a paste of anchovies, capers, and garlic. Unless you make your own bread (from her recipe, naturally), you have to broil the bread to give it substance. Otherwise, it will turn to mush. I did make her bread, so I didn't bother toasting it under the broiler. It didn't get soggy, but I do wish I'd toasted it. I think the salad--very good as it was--would have been even better if the bread had had some crunch.
There are some fussy steps to making this really pretty easy salad. Of course, there's baking the bread, but that's not really essential. Then there's the onion routine: swish sliced onions in cold water, drain, repeat, drain, repeat. But you know what? These were the mildest onions I've ever tasted--with onion flavor, but no onion bite.
Then there's the step where you mash capers and garlic together. The only hard part is finding the mortar and pestle. (You're supposed to mash a few anchovies too, but I declined).
One of three tomatoes is supposed to go through a food mill. I don't have a food mill, but my little immersion blender worked just fine.
Olive oil, red wine vinegar, the caper/garlic mixture, and chopped yellow bell pepper, at the bottom of the serving bowl, just waiting to receive the other ingredients:
And the bread cubes are mixed with the pureed tomato. They are supposed to soak up the tomatoes for at least 15 minutes. I worried that they'd be soggy, but they weren't. Obviously, that would be a problem if you used kleenex bread.
They're so pink they almost look like shrimp.
All the ingredients, just waiting to be mixed.
And the final salad. Delicious with lemon-and-herb grilled chicken. A very simple concept and full of flavor. If you really balk at the idea of baking your own bread, you can certainly buy some country-style bread, use it on the second day, and broil it a bit. If you don't want to soak the onions, use some nice spring scallions. But go ahead and try it.
Jim: 9.5. I really liked it. And it's a salad, which I'm not usually that crazy about.
Sarah: Oh, I don't know. It's very good, and I might give it a 10. But you can't give everything a 10, can you? So maybe I'll give it a 9. No, a 9.5, like Dad.
Marie: Very fresh-tasting, and I love the idea that it's just a poor person's dish made from some things that you grew and some stale bread. I'll give it a 9 because I think I'd have liked it better if I'd toasted the bread first and it had been a little crunchy.