Dish of the Week: Panzanella, or Tuscan Bread and Fresh Tomato Salad

From classic comfort foods to regional standouts and desserts, we'll be sharing a new recipe with you each week. Find other dishes of the week here.

This week, we’re gearing up for the season with a dish that’s perfect for the summer: panzanella salad.

Panzanella, also known by the name panmolle, is a Tuscan-style tomato salad, but the star of the show is, oddly enough, stale or dried-out bread. To make it, pieces of the bread are revived by a quick soak in water or vinaigrette, then tossed with fresh tomatoes, onions and herbs.

Though the exact origin is unknown, the dish dates back centuries to a time when Italians — with a waste-nothing mentality – likely invented it as a way to use old bread. Today, the supporting role is certainly played by tomatoes, but onions and cucumbers were more likely to be incorporated in the dish’s original iteration. A poem by a 16th-century artist known as Il Bronzino gives one of the earliest references to what is now known as panzanella, describing a dish of onions with oil and vinegar served with toast and a salad of cucumbers.

The salad is pretty basic, though common variations can include everything from mixed greens, basil and peppers to mozzarella, capers, tuna, olives and boiled eggs. Other variations include dried cranberries, toasted walnuts, chopped apples and honey-balsamic vinaigrette, as in the Fall Panzanella recipe we shared awhile back.

But it’s summertime, so we’re sticking with the classics. This recipe, from Serious Eats, dries out ciabatta or rustic sourdough in the oven, producing a better texture than stale bread (but if you have stale bread, that’s fine too!). A tomato juice, Dijon and red wine vinaigrette adds tang, while chopped basil and salted and drained tomatoes pack freshness.

Classic Panzanella Salad (Tuscan-Style Tomato and Bread Salad)

Ingredients yields 6 servings
2-1/2 pounds mixed tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
3/4 pound ciabatta or rustic sourdough bread, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes (about 6 cups bread cubes)
10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup packed basil leaves, roughly chopped

Place tomatoes in a colander set over a bowl and season with two teaspoons kosher salt. Toss to coat. Set aside at room temperature to drain, tossing occasionally, while you toast the bread. Drain for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F and adjust rack to center position. In a large bowl, toss bread cubes with two tablespoons olive oil. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until crisp and firm but not browned, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Remove colander with tomatoes from bowl with tomato juice. Place colander with tomatoes in the sink. Add shallot, garlic, mustard and vinegar to the bowl with tomato juice. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.

Combine toasted bread, tomatoes and dressing in a large bowl. Add basil leaves. Toss everything to coat and season with salt and pepper. Let rest for 30 minutes before serving, tossing occasionally until dressing is completely absorbed by bread.
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Brooke Viggiano is a contributing writer who is always looking to share Houston's coolest and tastiest happenings with the Houston Press readers.
Contact: Brooke Viggiano