For all of the wonderful simplicity and economy found in Italy's tradition of cucina povera–literally “poor kitchen”, or peasant food–Italians can get awfully cranky when it comes to misinterpreting their barebones culinary ways. In the most purist, traditional recipes, garlic and onion never cross their allium swords, pizza marinara is as adverse to the inclusion of cheese as an authentic taco and, of course, there's the whole no grating cheese over seafood pasta dishes. Its hard to argue with these ridged rules, as regardless of their seeming illogic, you're taste buds will certainly not miss a showering of parmigiano over a plate of linguine alla vongole enjoyed in, say, Venice. Still, for the interested cook, its always a wonder to find out what you've been doing wrong, and the “official” manner in which a dish is done right. Such is the case with this week's recipe, the Tuscan salad staring bread and tomatoes, panzanella.
Here's my long-held image of panzanella: chunks of fresh, ripe tomatoes tossed with cubed bread–preferably stale, but toasted until dry and crunchy if need be–dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar and garnished with a heavy handful of basil. However, according the seemingly defunct website The Artisan (thanks to Chocolate & Zucchini for the link), my sacrileges in this thinking are many, although not quite as numerous as those found in a recipe from Cuisine magazine–which included, amongst other things, chicken broth. These transgressions prompted The Artisan to post an English translation of a truly traditional Tuscan recipe for panzanella. In way of accreditation, the author of the post tells of a friend whose family has lived in Siena for over 350 years and prepares the salad–a salad! made of leftover bread!–in just this very way: with stale bread, soaked in warm water, the slices squeezed dry and torn apart by hand; with red onion and cucumber in addition to the ripe tomatoes; with–and at least I had this part right–olive oil, red wine vinegar and basil to pull it all together.
So what follows is, it turns out, very much not an panzanella. But as a bastardized, somewhat Italianate combination of bread and tomatoes–which are just coming into season, making the next few months the only time of the year you should really consider eating a fresh tomato–makes for good eating, nevertheless.
Panzanella Tomato and Bread Salad
4 large, ripe tomatoes
¾ pound bread
¼ cup, packed, basil leaves
3 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1) Slice the bread and place in the oven, heated to 350 degrees, to crisp up the bread. Once the slices feel crunchy, remove and chop into ½ cubes
2) Put a pot of water on the stove to boil and, which waiting, cut an X ¼ inch deep in the bottom of each tomato. Prepare and ice bath too.
3) Once the water is boiling, place the tomatoes in the water and count to ten. Remove and shock in the ice bath in order to loosen the skins.
4) Peel away the skins and slice each tomato in half, squeezing out the seed, which can be discarded
5) Cut the halved tomatoes into chunks, keeping the size similar to the cubed bread.
6) Place tomatoes and bread in a bowl and drizzle with a good amount of olive oil and the red wine vinegar. Toss to coat, then season with salt, to taste.
7) Let the salad sit for a few minutes, allowing the oil and vinegar to soak into the bread, as well as letting the salt pull the juices out of the tomatoes, further enhancing the dressing. Left for too long, the bread will turn to mush–you're looking to achieve a middle ground where the bread chunks are juicy, but still have some bite to them. Give one a taste after about five minutes.
8) Chop or tear the basil, tossing half of it in with the salad and using the remainder as a garnish, along with a final swirl of olive oil