Tuscany. Just the name sounds so beautiful. Makes me think of green rolling hills, vineyards, cypress trees, sunsets, calm, quiet, cobble-stone streets, red roofs... Imagining Tuscany made me dreamy. And then I realized that I have been to Tuscany and that it is indeed all I imagine. That was a long time ago, seems like a different life now. I remember standing in line to see Michelangello's David and being surprised that the statue was smaller than I expected; climbing the stairs to the top of El Duomo in Florence and being utterly stunned by the view; sitting on the curb in a square, listening to a concert and drinking beer; walking the narrow streets of Sienna. And then, there is the memory of the medieval torture museum in the tiny town of San Gimignano, which still keeps me up at night. But I don' t remember a single meal I ate. So now, a little belatedly, I am trying to familiarize myself with Tuscan cuisine.
Panzanella is a traditional bread summer salad. I only found out about the concept recently, after coming across a grilled panzanella recipe online. And then I found that a whole of three pages are devoted to it in the Dean and Deluca cookbook (which is a fantastic read by the way). It is meant to be a leftover salad to use up stale bread (and possibly other odds and ends). But before I start muddling the water, here is the classical version:
1.5 parts tomatoes
1 part cucumber, peeled
1 part onion
1 part stale bread, de-crusting optional
torn basil leaves
Dressing: 2 to 1 ratio of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, preferably white
Instead of giving exact measures, I am listing the basic proportions (by weight) though these need not be obeyed exactly. The idea is that the salad is dominated by tomatoes and bread, with less prominent presence of cucumbers, onions and basil. The exact preparation of the vegetables is up to you. Dean & Deluca suggest that you thinly slice everything. I prefer my tomatoes in bite-sized pieces and my cucumbers and onions quartered and then sliced. Either way goes. The bread should be de-crusted traditionally, but I left the crust because I like its chewy texture but that brings the bread forward flavor-wise. For a more fluffy and subtle bread texture, remove the crust. What bread to use? The salad works best with a hearty white bread with solid body and a bit of chewiness. It is best if the bread has been around for at least 4-5 day and is quite stale. If you only have non-stale bread, don't despair - just skip the "getting the bread wet" part.
Now, how does it all come together? Slice the onions and cucumbers, toss them with some salt and leave in a colander to drain some of the liquid while prepping the rest of the salad. Chop the tomatoes and add to the cucumbers and onions. De-crust the bread if desired and cut or tear into bite-sized pieces. Place the bread in another colander and sprinkle with cold water until the pieces are moist throughout (taste-test). It's ok if there are dry patches here and there, because these will absorb the moisture from the vegetables. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl, add the basil and toss with the dressing. Do not over-dress, you don't want to over-power the vegie taste. Add the bread and toss again, gently. Serve immediately or stick in the fridge for a few minutes until you are ready to eat it. This salad is way better if all the ingredients are really cold.