Slightly inauthentic panzanella, in celebration of spring.
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
There are as many recipes for panzanella as there are middle class Britons who visit Tuscany. Once it gets into the territory of capers, yellow peppers, spring onions, and even, in one crazy American recipe, toasted pine nuts and chicken broth (I know, I don’t either), it has gone so far from its roots as to be unrecognisable. It was originally invented by thrifty Tuscan peasants as a way of using up stale bread; since the bread went rock hard in the hot Italian sun, it was soaked in water to soften it, hence the name, which means little swamp.
The authentic panzanella features only tomatoes, cucumber, basil, red onions, olive oil and red wine vinegar. I am heretic enough to admit that I do not like my bread swampy, but instead cube it and toast it a little in a frying pan, which would make purists call the food police. Also, I do not care much for vinegar or raw red onions, so I am leaving those out.
Here is my version, for two people:
Four fat, ripe tomatoes that actually taste of something.
Half a cucumber.
Two handfuls of slightly stale bread – ciabatta or good white sourdough.
A handful of basil leaves.
Extra virgin olive oil, the best you have.
Cube the tomatoes. Sprinkle them with two or three good pinches of sea salt and let them sit for half an hour to bring out the juices. Cube the cucumber. Cube the bread, and fry it up a little in a dry pan, until it is golden around the edges. Tear the basil. Mix it all up in a big white bowl, and add as much olive oil as you wish. I use quite a lot, making sure that the bread soaks most of it up. Add a couple of screws of black pepper. Check for seasoning. Sometimes I add a tiny dash of lemon juice, and, very occasionally, a few black olives.
That’s it – a perfect spring salad for the credit crunch. It is delicious with a grilled chicken breast or a lamp chop.
Important footnote: you can’t cheat on this one. An elderly cucumber from the bottom of the fridge, some furry tomatoes, cheap olive oil, Mother’s Pride and tired basil will not cut it. Because of the simplicity of the dish, the ingredients really count.