For as far back as my memory serves me, my family loved red, ripe tomatoes, fresh from the garden.
Pop had a long, narrow bed in the back yard in which he planted a variety of tomato plants each year. Throughout the winter, he fed the garden with scraps from the kitchen that transformed themselves into a rich, black compost that he turned under into the soil every spring. That was it — no other fertilizers, particular watering plan or anything else except his golden rule to remove the lowest leaves from the purchased starter plants then bury the stalk to the next set of leaves when planting.
Pop usually bought his tomato plants from the local hardware store where they appeared on a makeshift display constructed from cement blocks and wooden planks. Pop would mix and match a couple flats of plants, choosing early-, mid-, and late-season producing varieties. Every once in awhile, Pop would be late in going for the plants and would come home with a bunch of sad, droopy specimens. He never failed to get them to come around and by mid-season, their appearance belied their tenuous start in our garden.
During the 60’s and through the mid 70’s, our household consisted of my Nana, Pappy, Mom, Dad, and me. As quickly as Mother Nature presented us with juicy, ripe tomatoes, we made good use of them. Nana and I loved Fried Red Tomatoes. Pop would pick a tomato fresh from the vine and eat it like an apple. My mother’s guilty pleasure was cutting a ripe tomato or two into chunks, sprinkling it with a little salt, pepper, and white sugar and snacking on them accompanied by peanut butter on saltine crackers. There were many nights I found her in the kitchen having that as her pre-bedtime snack.
Our repertoire for fresh tomato recipes centered around a few particular dishes until one summer when a relative brought a salad to a family reunion. It started my love affair with a new dish that shined with the flavors only fresh bummer tomatoes can afford. The salad was the Italian classic, Panzanella. I begged for the recipe then begged
Mom to make it several times every summer during tomato season.
The original version started out as a very basic mix of only garden fresh tomatoes, day-old bread, slivered red onions, and a oil/vinegar dressing. I made it that way for many years but my late husband, James, was not a big fan of it, and I wound up eating most of the batch myself whenever I made it.
One day, as I was preparing to make some Panzanella, I found myself standing with the door of the refrigerating open, gazing in, finding items that should be used up soon — half a cucumber, the end of a jar of Kalamata olives, a portion of a log of fresh mozzarella… The frugal Dutchie in me said, “Don’t let those go to waste!” So, I diced and chopped and cubed and added them to the Panzanella. Long a fan of fresh basil, I cut some off of the small shrub-sized plant perched on my kitchen windowsill and tossed that in, too. Even if James wouldn’t eat it, I would enjoy it, especially with some of my favorite foods as additions.
But James did eat it — almost all of it. Over the years, he would eat almost every drop of it every time I made it after that day. I never went back to the “original” recipe for the version I first discovered at that family reunion so many years ago since this one with some simple additions was so popular in my house.
Although you can make this all-year around, it is at its stellar best when made with garden fresh tomatoes.
Panzanella is a Tuscan chopped salad of soaked stale bread, onions and tomatoes that is popular in the summer. It is also popular in other parts of central Italy. The name is believed to be a combination of “pane”, Italian for bread, and “zanella”, a deep plate in which it is served. Until the 20th century, panzanella was based on onions, not tomatoes.
The “recipe” for Panzanella is more of a list of ingredients with the cook deciding on amounts. If you really love an ingredient, add more. If there is something you don’t like, leave it out. With the exception of the bread, tomatoes, onions and dressing, additions or deletions are up to you and your taste. Some additional add-ins are capers and/or marinated artichoke hearts.
i prefer seedless (English) or mini cucumbers in my Panzanella; if using the familiar garden cucumber, remove the skin and scoop out the watery seed pocket.
Because good bread does not last long in my house, I rarely had “stale” loaves at hand. I choose to dry out the bread and crisp it up by toasting the cubes in the oven. During my days living in The Coal Region, the bread of choice for panzanella in my house was the out-of-this-world Italian loaves from the Minersville Bakery (Minersville, PA). During my stint in New Hampshire, I liked to use ciabatta, which was readily available from several local stores.
One thing to keep in mind is that the juices from the tomatoes are an integral part of the dressing; use juicy, but firm tomatoes in this salad and allow the cut tomatoes to sit in the dressing before starting to assemble the salad.
PanzanellaCourse: SaladsCuisine: GeneralDifficulty: Easy
About 6 cups day old ciabatta bread or crusty Italian bread, cubed into 1- to 1 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 – 4 medium cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, or balsamic vinegar
About 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces or assorted cherry tomatoes ,cut in half (or mix and match varieties/colors)
1 cup fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-sized pieces or “pearl” mozzarella
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, or to taste
1/2 cup thinly sliced seedless or mini cucumber, or to taste
1/4 cup pitted and halved Kalamata olives, or to taste
1/4 cup small fresh basil leaves, or to taste
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Cut tomatoes into bite-sized chunks; cut cherry tomatoes in half. Place in a large bowl. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil and vinegar of your choice; add a pinch or salt and pepper. Pour this mixture over the tomatoes, stir gently, then set aside while preparing bread. This allows the juices from the tomatoes to mingle with the dressing.
- In a large bowl, toss bread cubes with 2 Tablespoons olive oil, the garlic and a pinch of salt and black pepper until coated. Spread bread cubes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer; toast in pre-heated oven until golden brown stirring once or twice (about 8 – 10 minutes or so depending on oven and size of cubes). Remove from oven allow to cool.
- Gently toss together the bread cubes, tomatoes/dressing mixture, onion, olives, cucumber and mozzarella. Sprinkle with the fresh basil leaves. Allow to stand 20 to 30 minutes before serving. Drizzle with additional olive oil when serving, if desired.