Chapter 11 of my Moss Reid book Another Case in Cowtown features a recipe for panzanella. It’s the recipe from that book that I get most questions about, yet it couldn’t be simpler.
Panzanella is not posh restaurant food by any means. But it’s a main dish of the day for the workers of the restaurant in the book.
Panzanella is basically an Italian “leftovers bread salad”, an ideal way of using up large quantities of stale bread. Like many a good recipe for leftovers it’s also quick, substantial, economical, simple and scrummy – peasant food at its very best.
I haven’t included a photo of the dish here. Why? Because, frankly, a bowl of panzanella can often look like a right awful mushy mess.
But looks aren’t everything. Don’t let me put you off: the flavours and textures are well worth it.
- Lots of old bread
- Cucumber (optional)
- Some ripe tomatoes – at room temperature rather than fridge cool
- A sweet red onion, thinly sliced (white onion or spring onion is not the end of the world either)
- Fresh parsley or, better still, basil
- A small glug of wine vinegar or sherry vinegar or even white wine
- A couple of spoons of good extra virgin olive oil
- Some grinds of fresh black or red pepper
- Crushed and finely chopped garlic, lots of it
- A pinch of sea salt to taste
- Parmesan cheese (no, Red Cheddar doesn’t quite work), freshly grated
The bread needs to be white. Brown wholemeal or soda bread doesn’t quite work, and sliced pan is problematic too. A good old baguette or Vienna roll is far better.
The bread really should be about a day old and quite hard for this to work well. It’s a texture thing. Cut off any excess crust if you like, then roughly tear or slice the bread into bite-size pieces or cubes. You can toast them or dry them out in the oven but this is optional.
Then put the bread into a large bowl. For the rest of the ingredients, chop or tear them so that they are a similar size to the bread. Cube the cucumber (if using it), chop the tomatoes throughly, slice the onion finely, roughly shred the parsley/basil.
Add all these ingredients to the bowl – everything apart from the Parmesan (you could add it at this stage but I prefer to leave it until the end). Make sure to keep ALL the juices of ALL these vegetables. Mix well.
The mixture should be moist but not soggy. Add more olive oil or a splash of water if it seems too dry. Add more vinegar to taste. Leave for 10 minutes, let the juices and oil soak into everything.
Finally, sprinkle on the Parmesan. Serve. Enjoy.
Other panzanella recipes
Admittedly, this is just your bog standard recipe for panzanella.
Most of the ingredients depend on what you have to hand at the time and want to use (or use up). It’s all very, well, “store cupboardy”. Find the rhythm and the underlying rules and off you go.
Experiment. Bring out your creative side. Think pizza topping ingredients.
Try capers and stoned olives (panzanella loves them), chopped anchovies, roasted peppers, ham, half a jar of artichokes, a good dollop of pesto, sun-dried tomatoes.
Panzanella’s origins can be traced to the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Lazio. Naturally enough, our Italian friends have passionate arguments about what should or shouldn’t go into panzanella. Ignore them. Because this is a quick, no-nonsense, make-it-up-as-you-go-along recipe with whatever works for you.
There are never precise measurements, the above are only guidelines: do it all by taste, smell and eye.
It’s ideal for the frugal cook, it’s refreshingly summery, and it has most of the elements of a healthy Mediterranean diet.