I posted a photograph on Facebook of panzanella heaped on a plate, which I made this past Sunday: the first panzanella of summer, which evoked some comments and requests for the recipe. Now I don’t particularly post recipes on this blog, since this is more memoir than recipe book, but I have decided to make an exception.
My introduction to panzanella was by an ex lover, who secretly(he was married and so were I) wrote me long letters for years from the UK: he was a bit of a foodie himself, and sometimes we exchanged recipes. He had written that he had made panzanella: as this was before the age of the internet, I had to ask him:”what is THAT?”, since the word was completely foreign to me. I did glean that it was Italian though! And because he loved me, he patiently explained, referring me to the recipe in Alastair Little’s book: “Keep it Simple” which I had on my shelf at the time. We had a few of the same recipe books on our shelves: Nigel Slater’s, Marcella Hazan’s….
Alastair Little’s book is a treat by the way. Clearly written, carefully selected recipes which one returns to again and again. So, I made my first panzanella inspired by an ex lover, and to the recipe of Alistair Little. It is also him who explains in his book that this is the result of the Cucina Povera culture: where very humble, staple ingredients are used to create something wonderful to eat. This stemmed from how to use up stale bread. Stale Italian bread, mind you, the white fluff, protein enriched and all, which makes up a white loaf here(and in the UK) will simply not do.
So ideally, you need a quantity of day or two old ciabbata or panini. You can however, buy it fresh and dry roast the chunks of bread in the oven til slightly, very slightly, toasted. This can be tricky: Alastair Little warns that by the time you start smelling the bread toasting it may be too late, and the whole lot has to be tossed if it had started to blacken. Else you simply tear the old bread into chunks, dump the pieces quickly into water and squeeze it all out: a sturdy bread will cope with this.
Then roughly chop up very ripe tomatoes(or baby romanos cut in half), same quantity of cucumber, and one red onion very very finely. Combine the bread, tomato, cucumber and onion in a bowl, sprinkle with red wine vinegar and olive oil(this needs some practice because the balance needs to be exactly right: enough to soak the bread, but not too much vinegar to render it inedible). Let it rest for a couple of hours if you can in the fridge, tossing it every now and then. The tomatoes start releasing their sweet juices and melds with the oil and vinegar in the most exquisite way and also seeps into the bread, so that when you are ready to serve it, the bread is still firm but full of delicious juices. Season lightly with salt and pepper: I prefer Maldon and coarsely ground black pepper.
Tear up a handful of fresh basil leaves into the salad right before serving and voilá: panzanella!
I have since seen many recipes which includes capers, carrots, and olives: but this is the definitive, very simple original version.
I do sometimes think of this ex lover of mine when I make this: I did not on Sunday. We stopped writing letters some years ago, and more recently I have declined his Facebook friend request. He belongs at last, in my past: my heart and my head are completely here these days….even though I will forever be thankful that he introduced me to this culinary treat.