Friday, August 13, 2010

What's a real panzanella?

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite cuisine might be, I invariably answer, “Italian!” I do love Italian food, and the usual suspects – lasagna, tetrazzini, cannelloni -- are on our traditional favorites list. In fact, a pan of shells stuffed with ricotta and spinach with a slow-simmered homemade meat and mushroom sauce is baking in the oven right now.

But I don’t very often veer off my self-induced safe path when cooking at home. So every once in a while, I decide I’ll try something new Italian! My target was panzanella. All I really knew about panzanella before I started reading that it’s basically a salad made with stale bread and fresh tomatoes.

I opened up a little can of worms! To be truly authentic, I learned, the bread in panzanella, which is considered a Tuscan dish, is soaked in water for a few minutes, then shredded. Other marks of authenticity are anchovies, capers, and basil. Some recipes included cheese, either mozzzarella or Parmesan.  But most of the recipes I consulted for my base – I knew I’d want to change something – called for toasting bread cubes. What a quandary! Do I try and stay authentic or do I follow the pack?

How a recipe, or rather good cooking, evolves is all about change. It’s not changing something or adding a personal imprint just for the sake of individuality; it’s accommodating individual tastes and making good use of what’s available.

One thing I’ve always admired about Italian cooking is the lack of waste – everything is put to use or reprised in a new role.

So this “panzanella” is not authentic; it’s an amalgamation of all that I read. It is important not to soak the bread so it either has to be really stale or toasted before you toss the salad with the dressing.

I added kohlrabi, even though that’s certainly not traditional. (It was going to go to waste if I didn’t use it soon.)  And I added a cucumber, too, because a neighbor had just given me one. The kohlrabi gave an nice extra crunch to the salad. I sneakily put it in. My husband had to ask, “What’s the crunchy stuff? It’s not celery.” So I had to fess up.

(I just realized that this will be the fourth salad in a row that I’ve posted. Hey! It’s summer. Something else next time, I promise.)

Tomato-Bread Salad
adapted from Better Homes & Garden, June 2010

4 medium roma tomatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
½ medium red onion, cut in thin wedges
1 medium yellow sweet pepper, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 medium kohlrabi, peeled and cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
½ t Italian seasoning blend
½ t salt
¼ t pepper
8 oz. ciabatta
1 cup small fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In shallow baking pan, toss bread cubes with 1 T olive oil to coat. Bake about 10 minutes or until toasted, stirring once. Remove and cool on pan. Just before serving, add bread cubes and basil to tomato mixture; toss to coat.

In large serving bowl, combine tomatoes, red onion, yellow sweet pepper, kohlrabi and cucumber. To make dressing, combine the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper in a food processor). Add to tomato mixture and refrigerate overnight – up to 24 hours. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


  1. Now I know what real panzanella is. Not like the Panera bread one.

  2. And I know a lot more about cakes (and such!) from you, Rick!

  3. It looks delicious!

  4. Wow, nice salad as meal and this one is just the right one :-) Thanks for the nice panzanella ;-)

  5. Thanks for the true origin of panzanella. It's one of my fave summer meals and yours sounds delicious!

  6. Wonderful and informative post! I've always been fond of panzanella but I never knew the background.

  7. your panzanella looks sooooo good!! My wife is not a fan of bread in her tomato salad, I just love it!! Thanks for all the great info too! Honestly I don't like it soaked it needs to just pick up the juices from the salad...and your Kohlrabi is a nice addition!

  8. My sister (a r-e-a-l-l-y good cook) gave me this info -- "I read your posting about Panzanella and it reminded me of a little anecdote I learned from my Cooking Club of America book on Bread -- Panzanella is a Tuscan summer salad created to use the seasonal glut of tomatoes, and it usually includes Pane di Prato bread (also known as Pane Toscana), a traditional saltless Tuscan bread. During the Middle Ages, Tuscany's neighboring provinces controlled the Italian salt market, levying a heavy salt tax. Unwilling to submit to their rivals, the Tuscans created breads made without salt. They have a nice yeasty flavor but quickly become stale, so the stale bread and ripe tomatoes became the prime ingredients for Panzanella. The recipe I have doesn't call for soaking the bread in water, but it does say to cut off the crusts." Interesting to learn this stuff!


I realize you don't have to take the time to comment . . . but it makes my day! So glad you decided to stay.