Friday, 20 March 2009

Today I am eating

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.
Malden Salt.

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.


  1. I was reading this recipe and thinking that would be great for the credit crunch - then you said it! Can I borrow for my blog?

  2. I have to share one of my husband's and my dearest memories with you: On our second date (imagine this, a widower of 40something and a single mum of 30something, tentatively and nervously dating) I decided to make one of my then staple dishes, guess what. I use the big crunchy capers and black olives in my recipe and I soak the bread in a yummy dressing rather than water. The dishes with their colourful mountains of panzanella looked so delicious to my eye. But eh, my husband-to-be, who is actually not a fussy eater, dislikes both peppers, capers and olives...
    Well, it's been almost ten years and we're still married. And when we see panzanella on the menu at restaurants it always makes us laugh. I'll dig out my recipe (haven't used it since, ha) and post it on my blog - just for comparison.
    Thank you for a great blog - keep up the good work. Your book is waiting for me to find the time to read it. Can't wait!

  3. and isnt this what italian food is all about - the purity, innocence and simplicity of it? you would also adore fattoush, same concept as panzanella. spent 6 years working in italy and couldnt find this dish in rome- each region showcases it's own cuisine. food from the indian sub-continent is the same- rumour has it that once nehru was hosting a state dinner for the argentinian PM- his wife turned out to be a vegetarian- nehru's chef had to quickly whip up a dish- and everyone, to be polite, would eat the same. out came basmati rice and dahl. the - simplest, yet, most difficult dish to make- perhaps like panzanella or fattoush. i shall try your recipe when the hothouse tomatoes are gone (thank god) and the heirloom tomatoes are finally here.


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