The rush of produce at farmers markets starts a summer cycle for many of us who cook at home: Buy everything in abundance, and find ways to use it before we buy in abundance again.

Ripe tomatoes are now coming in at their juiciest prime. They are both the main reason and the main ingredient for a salad built on bread and a few assorted vegetables. Tomatoes, in many shapes, sizes and even stripes, are the stars of this Italian bread salad known as panzanella that can be either a savory appetizer or accompaniment.

The panzanella recipe offered here is one I've tweaked to meet my own personal taste. I let a plain, rustic loaf (not sourdough, not grainy, no seeds or spices) turn dry for 1 to 2 days. Then I tear it into substantial, larger-than-crouton-size chunks. The bread gets lightly coated with a good, fruity olive oil and toasted or quickly grilled over a barbecue fire.

Next, a garden variety of items goes into the bowl and is given a good toss before being combined with herbs, splashed with wine vinegar, seasoned with salt and pepper and those wonderful, and warm chunks of bread.

The salad is both snappy and supple, long on flavor and light on cooking effort. Taken a step further, the basic elements can also be expanded (see Variations). It's the summer dish I look forward to making, in all its savory permutations.

Summer Bread Salad

6 to 8 servings

Lightly dressed and lush with tomatoes.

6 cups (loosely packed) crusty, country-style bread, torn into rough chunks (about 1 medium-size loaf)

About 1/3 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for drizzling

4 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks, or 11/2 pints cherry tomatoes, cut in half

2 small, firm pickling cucumbers (peeled if desired), diced or sliced

About 1/3 pound green beans, steamed until bright green, rinsed in cold water, drained and cut into 1-inch pieces

8 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 bell pepper (red, yellow or green), stemmed, seeded and diced or sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

18 to 20 small basil leaves (from 1 bunch)

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the broiler. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Place the bread on the foil, drizzle with 1/3 cup of the oil and toss to coat. Broil the bread, tossing just once, until the bread is golden with slightly darker edges, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes and their juice, cucumbers, cooked green beans, radishes, bell pepper and onion. Sprinkle the herbs over the top and toss gently to combine. Season with the vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and toss again. Add the still-warm toasted bread and toss again. Season with additional salt and pepper as necessary. (If the tomatoes are not juicy, you may add olive oil, as necessary.)

Spoon the bread salad onto a platter. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons oil over the top and, if desired, garnish with additional herbs. Serve immediately.

VARIATIONS: Consider any of these additions to enhance a rustic bread salad, adding each along with the fresh herbs:

* Olive 1/3 cup Nicoise olives, pitted.

* Tuna 3/4 cup oil-packed Italian tuna, drained and flaked.

* Anchovy 8 salt-packed anchovies, rinsed to remove salt, deboned and fillets trimmed.

* Bean 1 cup cooked chickpeas, cannellini or Great Northern white beans.

* Cheese 5 ounces smoked mozzarella, diced, or 4 ounces ricotta salata, roughly crumbled.

* Potato 4 to 5 ounces marble-size new potatoes, steamed until tender.

Per serving (based on 8): 259 calories, 7 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g saturated fat, 369 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber

Recipe tested by The Washington Post; e-mail questions to

Lisa Yockelson is the author of "Baking by Flavor" (2002) and the forthcoming "Chocolate Chocolate," both published by John Wiley & Sons. She last wrote for Food about summer fruit crisps.

A bountiful summer standout: Bread salad recipe, Page 5