Panzanella is a Tuscan bread-and-tomato salad that, like most rustic Italian dishes, manages to be both simple and sublime. Invented as a way to make the most of day-old bread and a garden brimming with vegetables and herbs, at its most basic it consists of a piece of a crusty loaf, perfectly ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
The bread is torn or cubed, coated in olive oil, toasted until crisp and then tossed with the rest of the ingredients so it absorbs the flavorful juices from the tomatoes and dressing, and softens a bit, but retains a pleasant crunch. From there you can run with any number of variations, adding other vegetables and flavor elements such as cucumber, red peppers, fennel, red onion, scallion, additional herbs, capers and/or olives. Chunks or small balls of fresh mozzarella cheese are also nice additions.
In the accompanying recipe, I include white beans for hearty texture and protein, which turns the salad into a main-course option. To integrate them and give the dish a somewhat more elegant spin, I depart from the usual big, rustic chunks of ingredients and instead dice the cucumber and use quartered grape tomatoes and small bread cubes so everything is petite and bean-size.
Also, rather than overwhelm the dish with heaps of bread, I use just enough of a whole-grain loaf to get the juice-sopping effect while keeping the dish lighter, more healthful and more vegetable-centric.
It’s an easy-breezy salad that feels just right for a summer lunch or to take to a cookout or picnic.
Krieger’s most recent cookbook is “Weeknight Wonders: Delicious Healthy Dinners in 30 Minutes or Less” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). She blogs and offers a weekly newsletter at www.elliekrieger.com.