Jun 16, 2008


You know how some foods just represent? Whether it's an occasion, a family favorite, a holiday memory or just the season they come from...some dishes can become a touchstone. This panzanella represents summer to me. Hands down, it is my favorite summer dish. This is the one I wait for. I wait for the perfect tomatoes, the sweet little Sun Golds; the fat, ripe, Cherokee Purples. It's hard to wait, but it's worth it.

Last year, we were overrun with tomatoes in the garden. But this summer's early heat wave (we're already busting records for numbers of days over 100 and it's only June) seems to be slowing things down. Finally, at the Sunset Valley Farmers' Market, I spotted a few Cherokee Purples this weekend. I've been waiting to share the recipe with you until I knew they were out there.

I know, I know, everyone's freaking about tomatoes just now. I don't want to get on a rant here, so suffice it to say, stay away from the giant agribusiness supermarket and fast food tomatoes. Eat local from your farmers' market or your own backyard and you'll be fine. (Here's the fine print on the tomato situation from the FDA and locally, the Austin Chronicle.)

Of all the things I've made and shared with friends, this is probably the most talked about. "That salad" they sometimes say, since no one seems to remember the name. Panzanella is basically a way to use up stale bread. It can be made anytime with whatever is seasonal. But for me, it's all about the tomatoes. This is desert-island food. One of my top ten, have it on a desert island for the rest of your life kind of things.

The recipe I'm going to give you is very loose. It's just our version. Put in it whatever you like that sounds good. It's very flexible. There is only one law of summer panzanella...do not, I repeat, do NOT use anything other than fresh from the garden or farmers' market tomatoes. No supermarket slushy stand-ins. Don't bother with those. It's not worth your time. To be transcendent, you need the real thing. That's my only rule.

Here's how we make it, and as I said, folks seem to really like it this way. The quantities below are pretty loose. I measured the ingredients here for the first time just to give you a guideline. But it's the kind of thing I make by tossing things into a giant bowl and it always comes together.

One tip: use a serrated knife to cut the tomatoes to avoid bruising them.

Summer Tomato Panzanella

First, cut a loaf of ciabatta bread into chunks. Spread the chunks out on a cookie sheet, drizzle with a bit of olive oil and toast in a 400 degree oven til lightly golden and crispy.

While the bread is toasting, cut up as many tomatoes as you can get your hands on, in as many colors and varieties as you can find: Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras, Sun Golds, Yellow Pear, Sweet 100s... Cut the large ones into bite-sized chunks and the little ones in half; be sure to get the juice into the bowl too. This is very important. Toss them all into the biggest bowl you have.

Using kitchen shears or just tearing in half with your hands, toss in as much baby arugula as you'd like. The peppery green it adds is really nice.

Chop yellow, orange and/or red bell peppers into chunks and toss 'em in the bowl.

Add 1/3 lb. Kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half.

Add 1/2 lb. fresh buffalo mozzarella, drained and cut into quarter size chunks.

Zest one organic lemon over the bowl. Then cut the lemon in half and juice half of it into the bowl. (The organic lemons I find are usually huge, so I only use half the juice. If yours are smaller, use all the juice, about 2-3 tablespoons.)

Drizzle in several good glugs of olive oil, about 4 tablespoons.

Next drizzle in some balsamic vinegar, about 3 tablespoons.

Sprinkle liberally with good sea salt and some fresh pepper.

Strip all the leaves off of a whole bunch of basil. Stack them 4-6 leaves at a time neatly on top of each other. Roll them up lengthwise, and the using a sharp knife or kitchen shears, cut them into ribbons over the bowl.

Toss it all together. Note, all the liquid will sink to the bottom, so stir that up in there too.

If you like, toast some (about 1/4 cup) pine nuts and set those aside to sprinkle on top for serving.

Plate it, fancy: toss a couple of handfuls of the toasted ciabatta cubes in the bottom of your individual bowls or plates. Place salad mixture on top. Sprinkle with pine nuts and arugula sprouts, if available.

Plate it, wolfish: toss all the toasted ciabatta cubes into the huge bowl with the salad. Toss together well, getting some of the bread down in there to soak up the tomato juices and dressing. This is what it's all about. Sprinkle the top with the pine nuts and some arugula sprouts. Grab some forks and dig in, straight out of the bowl. Granted, this isn't great for a dinner party. But when there's just two of us, we can sit down and polish off a huge bowl of this stuff. Feels good to gorge on produce.

Happy summer!

P.S. Want more ideas for panzanella?

101 Cookbooks has a beautiful spring version with asparagus and peas.

Michael Chiarello has several including this one for autumn with mushrooms and a breakfast version called panzanola.

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