I’ve been off my cooking game recently, and while it’s easy to make excuses, I’m adamant that it’s the heat. Sticky, muggy, exhausting heat that brings no respite. Cooking becomes a chore and an inconvenience. Last night I made the mistake of turning the oven on for some low-effort cooking, and then spent the following 20 minutes wandering around the house, perplexed as to why the house was even hotter than it had been for the last week. Perhaps the heat has addled my brain, too.
The answer, then, the antidote to this heat frenzy, is panzanella. Cool, calming panzanella.
Panzanella is a Tuscan salad mostly made up of tomatoes and bread. It is, like many of the best dishes, a peasant dish: it utilises slightly old, squishy tomatoes, and stale, unappealing bread. It mixes them together, with the bread soaking up the juices, and that’s where the magic happens. I can understand that if you haven’t had panzanella before, the thought of soggy bread doesn’t sound terribly delicious, but set your preconceptions to one side. This showcases the best of ripe, summer-sweet tomatoes, whilst being the ultimate use of ropey leftovers. This salad is refreshing and reviving: it is the only comfort food I can countenance in the Summer.
What should really be used here is proper Tuscan bread, pan sciocco, unsalted and (frankly) tasteless. The lack of taste isn’t a huge problem here because the bread will soak up all the gorgeous juices given off by the rest of the salad. But that bread isn’t available in England, and it’s absolutely not worth making your own. I tend to use old ciabatta, but any country loaf or rustic bread will do: I like it crusty so that when it soaks up the juices from the salad it doesn’t lose all of its texture. The one rule, however, is that it must be staling, otherwise the bread will fall apart.
As with all dishes that have been passed down through generations, there are a hundred different ‘definitive’ versions of panzanella, which, to my mind, gives you certain licence when putting the dish together: some insist on capers or anchovies, or use water to soak the bread, others add cucumber, chilli or garlic. Consider this version your basis, and add any other components you wish. Throw the basil in at the last possible moment, tearing it so that it gives up its scent. Oh, and don’t keep your tomatoes on the fridge: they become wooly and unforgiving, and end up tasting of nothing. Leave them in your fruit bowl and cut and serve at room temperature.
Eat this with pasta, dressed simply in butter and sage, if you can bear to turn the hob on, and if not, alone, heaped up in large bowls, with equally large glasses of the coldest white wine.
Makes: A generous supper for two, or side salad for four
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
6 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, mixed varieties if possible
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
120g stale bread, I use ciabatta
1/2 red onion
1 marinated red pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Cut the tomatoes into pound coin sized chunks and place in a bowl; if they’ve given up their juices whilst bring chopped, sweep that into the bowl too.
2. Slice the pepper into ribbons and slice the onion into slender crescents, and add those, along with the salt, vinegar and olive oil. Stir briefly.
3. Tear the bread into similar sized pieces to the other components and toss through the rest of the salad. Leave for around 15 minutes, for the bread to soak up all the gorgeous juices.
4. When you’re ready to serve, tear the basil and stir through the salad.