Don't waste that leftover bread - follow the Italian tradition and make it into a delicious panzanella salad with some juicy tomatoes. It's incredibly easy to make, and makes a great appetizer, side or light lunch.
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During the summer, I love enjoying all the really good tomatoes that we get on the local farmers' market. Between being more local so that they don't need to be chilled for transportation, and the varieties, they just taste so much better than the ones you get out of season.
I particularly like the heirloom varieties that we sometimes grow at home. Sadly we don't get quite enough direct sun, nor have that much space, to grow many. Another reason why the farmers' market is great to have nearby.
Anyway, I find when you get really good tomatoes, it's worth enjoying them in a way that shows them off. Dishes like a simple caprese, plain or smoked salmon bruschetta and gazpacho are all perfect for that, as is this tasty salad.
A use for leftover bread
This salad is a classic "plato povero" or poor plate. It evolved as a way to stretch out leftover bread into another meal. The dish has evolved over time and has a few variations, though all keep things relatively simple (other than maybe more modern variations).
The traditional Tuscan way starts by soaking the bread in water, but to be honest, I don't find this gives the best flavor to the salad. Instead, I prefer for the combination of the tomatoes juices, olive oil and vinegar to soften up and flavor the bread.
Tips for perfect panzanella
As I say this is a very simple dish, but there are a few things it's worth keeping in mind.
- Use high quality ingredients. Not that much goes in this, so you are going to taste the flavors. So you want to make sure they are as good as possible. Choose flavorful tomatoes (such as heirloom or vine-ripened), a really good olive oil and a good quality wine vinegar as well.
- Pick and prep the bread. Traditionally, this is made with a plain, unsalted bread, but you can also use ciabatta, sourdough or baguette. The bread should be relatively dry and stale. If it isn't naturally, you can help things along by putting slices of bread in a low oven for a few minutes, turning now and then, to dry it out on the outside.
- I've seen some versions with large pieces of bread but more traditional recipes seem to cut the bread smaller (which is also easier to eat).
- Give it time (but you can help). It might be tempting to dive in, but this dish needs a little time to settle in. Salt helps to bring the juices out of the tomatoes so I like to sit the tomatoes on top of the bread, salt them and leave them while you chop everything else.
- Then, add the onion and cucumber (if using), dress with oil and vinegar and toss it all together. Add the basil at the end so it doesn't get too bruised then let it all sit a while for the flavors to mingle.
However you enjoy it, this panzanella salad is such a delicious taste of summer. It's easy to make, frugal and packed with flavor. Make sure you make it soon and enjoy.
Try these other summer salads:
- Grilled nectarine salad
- Prosciutto salad with peach and mozzarella
- Luang Prabang salad (Laos salad)
- Plus get more summer recipes in the archives.
- 2 oz bread 60g, around 1 ½ - 2 cups (see notes)
- 2 tomatoes (around 7oz/200g)
- ⅛ tsp salt (approx)
- ¼ red onion
- ½ Persian cucumber (or approx ¼ - ⅓ English cucumber, optional)
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp wine vinegar eg champagne vinegar
- 5 basil leaves
- If the bread is not already relatively dry and stale, cut it into slices and leave overnight to dry, if you have time, or else place on a baking sheet in a low oven for a few minutes, turning now and then to dry out (but not go brown). Then continue with the rest fo the steps.
- Dice the bread in small bite-sized chunks (around ½in/1cm square) and lay in a layer in a wide bowl (a double layer is fine). Dice the tomatoes in roughly the same size then add them to the bowl on top, along with any juices that collect. Sprinkle over the salt and set the bowl aside.
- Thinly slice the shallot and cut the cucumber piece in half lengthwise then slice. Add both to the bowl with the bread and tomato and drizzle over the oil and vinegar. Mix everything together. I prefer to mix by hand so you can help ease the juices out of the tomato but with a spoon is also good.
- Slice up the basil and add to the bowl. Gently toss then leave the salad to sit around 20 minutes, ideally, before eating to let the flavors mingle (you can also leave a little longer in the fridge).
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