Great food does not need to be at all complicated or time-consuming. Sometimes the combination of humble ingredients can become something quite majestic.
A panzanella is a case in point and it is certainly one of the easiest and best salads you can have. Taking literally seconds to throw together, it is a celebration of flavours that work so wonderfully together: very much a case of when simplicity is best and a fussy approach should be avoided.
In short panzanella is bread mixed with tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil. Now a bread salad really might not sound that appetizing, and for ages I would steer clear from it, thinking it would be bland, soggy and dull. But what a fool I had been for all those years:
OH MY WORD! the flavours of garlic, fresh tomatoes, basil and capers are stunning at the best of times, but throw in a few chunks of great quality bread to mop up some of those lovely juices and you have one of the simplest dishes in the world that is seriously to die for.
Panzanella has now become one of the salads I make the most often – especially at this time of the year with freshly picked produce, although I do make a winter version using sun-dried tomatoes in oil and preserved peppers and the like; basically, store cupboard ingredients, and immediately it evokes a gorgeous summer for me.
Simple, fast food
For total speed, use delicatessen ingredients such as roasted peppers (a gorgeous and totally justified “cheat”) and artichokes.
You literally mix the ingredients together and leave them for an hour or so to allow the bread to soak up some the juices and the olive oil, while still retaining some bite.
I prefer using sourdough bread as it gives a much better flavour, it retains a nice chewiness and it doesn’t get soggy too quickly – but any good quality bread will do. My tips for making sourdough bread are here.
If the bread is quite fresh and soft, you can pop it in the oven for about 30 minutes at about 150C to dry out a little and crisp up first so that it takes on enough of the juices without getting soggy.
A great use of left-overs
Panzanella is a particularly great way to use up left-over or stale bread: I sometimes freeze pieces of bread to use later for dishes such as this.
All manner of other things can be added to panzanella, depending on what is lying around and how much or how little cooking you want to do:
- roasted courgettes
- pine nuts
- slowly roasted garlic cloves
- oven-roasted onions or shallots
- roasted peppers
But whether it’s a basic panzanella or one that has been played around with, there will still a taste explosion…and at least another helping!
I am deliriously happy to eat panzanella just as it is with a glass of chilled white wine on the patio, with the sun beating down, the sound of the pond fountain splashing away…all working together to create the illusion of being in Tuscany rather than in Southeast England!
It is also a great as an accompaniment for meats or fish: poached or oven-roasted salmon fillets with a generous spritz of lemon on top is one of my comfort eats throughout the summer.
Recipe: panzanella salad
- about 400g fresh tomatoes, any type or a mixture of types and sized, chopped into chunks or scrunched with your hands to release some of the juice*
- a few fairly thick slices (about 200g) of sourdough loaf, cut into rough cubes or even torn*
- 1 small red onion or a few spring onions, chopped small
- 1 tablespoon of capers, chopped
- 2-3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- a small handful of fresh basil, roughly torn
- a generous glug of extra-virgin olive oil
- a splash of balsamic vinegar
- fine sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
*these are rough proportions: I don’t tend to measure the bread and tomatoes out but as a guide, I go for up to twice as many tomatoes to bread by approximate weight
(1) Put all the ingredients into a large salad bowl and mix well. That is it! Add more tomatoes if you want to, or more bread….it really is a moveable feast.
(2) Leave for a few hours before serving – the bread should have absorbed many of the juices yet still retain some bite. A few whole basil leaves scattered on top rounds things off nicely.