Cooks are by nature a thrifty lot. Nothing delights them more than turning yesterday's leftovers into today's culinary triumphs.
Consider the case of bread. Americans aren't particularly imaginative when it comes to utilizing stale bread. (Our use of old bread is almost exclusively limited to bread crumbs and croutons.) But other cultures are endlessly ingenious when it comes to salvaging day-old bread.
The Portuguese, for example, turn stale loaves into rabanadas, crisp rounds of French toast perfumed with cinnamon and dusted with sugar. The Italians combine old bread with chicken broth, olive oil and pecorino cheese to make a soulful soup called pappa al pomodoro. The Spanish have elevated a stale bread and raw vegetable pure'e to a national dish: gazpacho.
To my thinking, one of the best uses for stale bread is in salads. In Tuscany, there's a wonderful summer salad called panzanella, made by moistening bread with water and tossing it with tomatoes, onions, olive oil and basil. The Lebanese raise the lowly pita bread to the level of art in fattoosh, a fragrant salad made with pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, pomegranate seeds and mint.
Bread salads are ideal for tailgate picnics and alfresco feasting. Unlike green salads, they won't wilt after 20 minutes. Unlike tomato or cucumber salads, they don't become soupy, because the bread absorbs the juices.
When preparing bread salads, use a firm, sturdy bread, like Tuscan bread, rye bread or French pain de campagne. Wonder Bread will disintegrate into starchy mush. Add the bread no earlier than 15 minutes before serving.
Here are three salads that make good use of stale bread.
FATTOOSH (Lebanese Bread Salad) (4 servings)
Traditionally, this salad would be garnished with pomegranate seeds. If unavailable, use more diced tomato or toasted pine nuts. The recipe has been adapted from Mary Laird Hamady's "Lebanese Mountain Cookery" (David R. Godine, 1987).
1 fresh pomegranate
2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 bunch scallions (1 cup finely chopped)
1 cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh spearmint or mint
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 pita breads
Break the pomegranate in half. Remove the seeds from one half and place in a large mixing bowl. Juice the other half, using a citrus reamer, and reserve.
Toss tomatoes, scallions, parsley and mint with the pomegranate seeds.
Combine the oil, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and pepper in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake well. Correct the seasoning, adding salt and lemon juice to taste. Add this dressing to the vegetables with the reserved pomegranate juice. Mix well.
Split the pita bread in half and cut each into 8 wedges. Just before serving, add the pita to the salad and toss well.
Per serving: 273 calories, 5 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 406 mg sodium.
PANZANELLA (Italian Bread Salad) (6 servings)
This simple salad has been popular in Tuscany since at least the 16th century, when a painter named Bronzino wrote a poem in its praise. The following recipe comes from Carol Field's authoritative book, "The Italian Baker," (Harper and Row, 1985).
6 thick slices Tuscan bread (or other firm, dense white bread)
6 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
12 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Soak the bread in cold water to cover until very moist (but not squishy), about 15 minutes. Squeeze each bread slice dry between your hands and then tear into small chunks.
Place the bread in a large bowl and add the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, celery and basil leaves. Mix the oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste and pour over the salad. Toss well and serve at room temperature.
Note: For a spicier version of panzanella, you can add 2 tablespoons chopped capers, 4 chopped anchovy fillets, 1 clove minced garlic, and 1 to 2 chopped hard-cooked eggs.
Per serving: 310 calories, 6 gm protein, 31 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 178 mg sodium.
GRILLED BREAD SALAD (4 servings)
You don't need to eat out all the time to notice that grill fever has reached near epidemic proportions in restaurants. Here's a salad featuring grilled bread and vegetables.
1 clove garlic
About 4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 loaf stale French bread
4 medium onions
4 plum tomatoes
2 red or yellow bell peppers
About 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
3 tablespoons chopped basil or other fresh herbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mash the garlic and mix it with the olive oil. Let the garlic infuse in the oil while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
Cut the bread into 8 thick diagonal slices. Quarter the onions. Peel the skins off the onion quarters, leaving the furry root end intact. (It will help hold the onion together during grilling.)
Toss the onions with a little garlic oil. Grill them over medium heat, turning once or twice, for 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Toss the scallions, tomatoes and peppers with a little more of the oil. Grill the scallions until limp and lightly browned, the tomatoes until the skins are browned and blistered, and the peppers until thoroughly charred. Brush the bread slices with oil and grill for 30 seconds per side or until golden brown. (Note: Grilled bread burns very quickly, so watch it carefully.)
Cut the root ends off the onions. Cut the scallions into 2 inch pieces, the tomatoes into 1 inch chunks. Scrape the charred skins off the peppers, then core and dice. Cut the bread slices in quarters. The recipe can be prepared to this stage up to 24 hours ahead.
Combine the grilled vegetables and bread in a large bowl with any remaining garlic oil, the vinegar, lemon juice, basil, and salt and pepper. Toss well. Correct the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, vinegar or olive oil to taste.
Per serving: 333 calories, 8 gm protein, 42 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.