It seems strange to be launching into tomato recipes at the start of September, but the growing season here in Seattle is a little behind most areas – only recently have the tomato plants on my balcony begun to produce in full force:
I’ll never complain about a surplus of tomatoes, regardless of how early or late in the season they come. My go-to summer recipe with fresh tomatoes is panzanella, a centuries-old Tuscan recipe that was originally a way to make use of stale bread.
Back in medieval times, Boccaccio mentioned the dish in the Decameron, calling it pan lavato, or “washed bread.” Traditionally, old crusty bread is soaked in water then squeezed dry before being combined with fresh garden ingredients. I find that whenever I’m around bread never lasts long enough to get the chance to turn stale, so I toast pieces in the oven with garlic and olive oil to lend a bit of crunch to my panzanella.
There are myriad versions of the salad, but the basic components are always fresh tomatoes and crusty bread. Some people include red onion, cucumbers, olives, capers, or fennel, and in coastal regions of Italy like Livorno it’s not unheard of to add seafood. I’ve made a tasty version with good canned tuna (marinated in olive oil), cannellini beans, pickles, and red onion mixed together with bread and basil – something that might make traditional Florentines turn in their graves. But most often I like to stick with a tomato and mozzarella combination since it’s such a crowd pleaser.
For me, panzanella is all tied up in nostalgia. It reminds me of cooking with my college roommates in Montreal after outings to Jean Talon market in Little Italy, when I’d ride my bike home balancing a trash bag full of fresh basil between my legs. We’d make industrial quantities of pesto and pasta sauce with our finds, but the recipe that stuck most was panzanella. My roommate who is now fearlessly making her way through medical school tells me it gets her through exam season each year.
This salad is so simple – and there are so many possibilities for great variations – that writing out a recipe seems kind of ridiculous. But basically, I aim for an equal ratio of bread, tomatoes, and mozzarella, and add enough dressing for the bread to absorb in addition to coating the ingredients.
Tomatoes (roughly diced, or cherry tomatoes cut in half)
Fresh mozzarella (again, roughly diced, or bocconcini)
A handful of fresh basil, torn
1-2 cloves of garlic
Balsamic vinegar (traditional recipes call for red wine vinegar, but I prefer the flavor of balsamic)
Salt & Pepper
Cut bread into 1″ thick slices. Cut cloves of garlic in half and rub on slices, drizzling a little olive oil on top, before putting in oven to toast for 5 minutes at around 400 degrees. Once toasted, tear into bite sized chunks. Combine bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, and dress with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt & pepper.