In summer when school was out, I was a latchkey kid, left to my own devices for the day. I knew every crevice of our house in Omaha. I was a natural snoop, a budding journalist who didn’t know it yet. But when I grew bored exploring my father’s bedroom, I would wander into his garden and pick a ripe tomato from the vine, cut it up on the counter, salt it and pop those wedges like Milk Duds.
This was the 1970s, when my idea of seasonal food consisted of rainbow-colored Popsicles and slimy packaged hot dogs cooked on the grill. My memories of those purloined fruits are as sweet as the tomatoes themselves. All these years later, I still experience a flood of endorphins whenever I stroll through a farmers market eyeballing the spectrum of summer field tomatoes, the round, neon-colored globes and the big, swollen beasts that look like party balloons ready to pop.
As much as I would love to wolf down salted tomato slices while standing over the sink at home, all alone, there’s no hospitality in that. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing recipes and talking to cooks about panzanella, the rustic Tuscan salad that refreshes stale bread with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and a touch of vinegar. My hope was to re-create a shareable dish outfitted with complementary flavors that would not overwhelm those summer fruits that have intoxicated me since boyhood.
The first thing I learned about panzanella was that although it’s such a simple dish, there are a thousand ways to prepare it. Some people use stale bread without the crusts. Others toast fresh bread with the crusts. Some soak the stale/toasted bread in water, squeeze out the liquid and crumble the slices into the salad. Others revive the stale/toasted bread with a small amount of white wine vinegar, water and salt. Some drain the tomatoes before incorporating them into the dish. Others just season the cut fruits and toss them right in. And so on and so on.
“Everyone has their take,” says Fabio Trabocchi, the Italian native and chef-owner of Fiola, Fiola Mare and other restaurants in the District. “There is a different idea in every household about what panzanella should be, and there is nothing more Italian than that.”
But whatever preparation you prefer, Trabocchi says, every recipe must rely on the same thing: fresh, ripe tomatoes. As gorgeous as those orbs look at the farmers market, the chef cautions, they are frequently under-ripe. Trabocchi will let them sit for a day or two, until the fruits feel soft and heavy to the touch.
“You can smell that tomato smell,” he says.
When I first started testing recipes, I set out to find one that incorporated the juice from drained, salted tomatoes into a vinaigrette, which would then rejuvenate the bread with the summery flavors I craved. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the managing culinary director at Serious Eats, had developed such a recipe, and the results were delicious. Yet it wasn’t exactly what I was after. The vinaigrette was classically prepared with minced shallot, garlic and a small amount of Dijon mustard as an emulsifier. It also included a lot of olive oil. I wanted something leaner, to better showcase the tomatoes.
Trabocchi offered a solution: A panzanella in which the vinegar and olive oil would combine — or at least share the bowl together — without a nasal-clearing emulsifier. He spritzes a solution of warm water, salt and white wine vinegar over chunky, lightly toasted pieces of bread and lets them sit for 15 minutes. He then gently folds the bread together with sliced tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil, salt, pepper and torn basil leaves. When I made it, that version, although also delicious, struck me as too lean, though I suspected the results would be different with Trabocchi at the helm.
So I split the difference with a recipe that whisks drained tomato juice into a “vinaigrette” without the pungent emulsifier and with only a nominal amount of white wine vinegar and olive oil. I was careful to pour just enough dressing onto the salad to moisten the bread, not drown the pieces in a tomato-juice river. One bite of the final dish and I was back at that countertop in Omaha, savoring the sweet, salty flavors on my tongue, the telltale tomato juice now dripping from my fork, not my fingers.
These tomatoes were no longer illicit, stolen from my father’s garden under a hot August sun. They were also accented with adult flavors and emotions unavailable to me as a boy: the big, aniselike aroma of basil; the sweet, ticklish heat of garlic; the peppery fruit of olive oil; and the bittersweet memories of a middle-aged man who will forever associate summer tomatoes with his dear, deceased father.
This Tuscan dish should be prepared only in summer, when field tomatoes are at their peak. Look for a variety of ripe heirloom varieties to give your salad color and contrasting flavors.
Some like to include more bread in their panzanella, treating the torn pieces like pasta. But this version favors the seasonal fruits, making sure their flavors are front and center in both the salad and the simple vinaigrette.
You can also garnish the salad with other herbs, such as mint and marjoram, but go easy on them: They can quickly overwhelm the dish.
MAKE AHEAD: The salted tomatoes need to rest for 20 minutes
Adapted from recipes by chef-restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi of Fiola in the District and from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, culinary director of SeriousEats.com.
3 cups packed, torn pieces sourdough bread (including crusts; from an 8-ounce loaf)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 1/4 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes, hulled and cut into bite-size wedges
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Freshly cracked black pepper
10 fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled and cut into very thin slices (chiffonade)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange the bread pieces on a rimmed baking sheet, then drizzle half of the oil over them and toss to coat. Bake for 15 minutes, until the bread is dried and fragrant but not browned. Let cool.
Meanwhile, place the tomatoes in a colander set over a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the teaspoon of salt; let them drain for about 20 minutes (no more), gently tossing them every few minutes. Transfer the tomatoes to a serving bowl along with the cooled bread pieces; toss to incorporate. Reserve the tomato juices in their bowl; there should be a scant half-cup.
Add the garlic, shallot and vinegar to those juices, then gradually whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to form an emulsified vinaigrette. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Pour over the tomato-bread mixture; use your clean hands to gently toss and coat.
Scatter the basil over the salad; serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 200 calories, 5 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Recipe tested by Tim Carman; email questions to email@example.com
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