Rarely is the gap between aspiration and reality wider than in advice on food waste. You have stale bread you need to use up? Then how about making guinea fowl stuffing? Or a summer pudding using only fruit from your allotment?
Short on time but keen to save the planet? Treat the family to extra bread sauce (like it’s 1879), herby stuffed mushrooms (like it’s 1979), or throw together some meat-free sausages that your family are likely to throw straight back at you. On and on it goes, in that well-meaning, impractical vein.
Panzanella, the subject of this month’s How to Eat, is very different. Pre-eminent among summer salads, this no-cook assembly of readily available ingredients is stupidly easy and also the most dignified way stale bread can exit this world; food waste’s equivalent of a state funeral. Will any children in your orbit enjoy it any more than the medieval gingerbread or ajo blanco you could have inflicted on them? Unlikely. They want frozen pizza. But happily panzanella will distract you from their whingeing.
Or it will if you treat this Tuscan salad right. That is where How to Eat – the series examining the optimal iteration of our favourite dishes – can help. Read on for that rare treat: a stale bread dish you genuinely want to eat.
OK. Are you sitting down for this bombshell? The bread doesn’t need to be stale. It can be. Sure. But unless going down the molto autentico route (addressed below), it doesn’t have to be. Surely that is a relief. Who wants to be restricted to eating panzanella only when you have stale bread to use? It is far too good for that.
No, rather than stale, the bread must be toasted and dried. That will ensure it is robust enough to absorb the salad’s juices and retain its structural integrity, but – as the salad is allowed to sit for a few minutes before serving* – in unpredictable ways that produce a variety of textures in the bread chunks: from sodden but still pleasantly chewy pieces to lightly doused shards which, at their edges, shatter with a satisfying crunch.
To achieve this, you essentially want to make XL croutons, bite-size morsels of bread (oiled, salted, possibly herbed and garlic-licked), that, after 20 minutes in the oven, take on a bronze, baked firmness. Interestingly, heat briefly reverses the retrogradation (starches reassembling into a crystalline structure), that makes stale bread tough. Baking gives stale bread a second lease of freshness which can only improve your panzanella.
This directly contradicts the many recipes which, obedient to panzanella’s peasant origins, unappetisingly recommend wetting untoasted pieces of stale bread with water, vinegar or vinaigrette and, after wringing them out, adding them to the salad. Such advice harks back to a time when people used very old, leathery bread, had no access to an oven and limited expectation of experiencing any pleasure before death. What made sense in 17th-century Florence can in 2021 (may HTE refer you to Saint Yotam of Ottolenghi?), only create pockets of wobbly, waterlogged mulch in your salad.
Is HTE’s approach inauthentic? Yes. Deliciously so. But do bear in mind panzanella was once an onion and bread salad, to which tomatoes were only regularly added as late as the 20th century. Do you want to eat tomato-free panzanella? Of course not.
The bread you use must be able to withstand moisture and jostling. The average sliced white loaf would readily disintegrate into gummy scum. Instead, panzanella requires something posh and dense, rustic and well built: the bread version of a rugby union back line. Plain sourdough (nothing overtly flavoured) or a heavyweight ciabatta will do the trick.
* Particularly when using crust-on sourdough, if you do not do let the salad sit for a while, some pieces will maintain a titanium-hard edge. No one should lose a tooth over panzanella.
Red onion, tomatoes, garlic, capers and anchovies are essential. Roasted peppers, firm, de-seeded cucumber, brined olives and fresh basil are desirable. Almost everything else is not. Think of panzanella in layers: a base of restrained umami savouriness (anchovies, garlic, bread), a mid-level explosion of fruity, sun-kissed flavours, and playing around that, various zesty top notes of acidic perkiness.
Two related matters demand the most attention here: tomatoes and vinaigrette. Invariably, you are instructed to use tomatoes so ripe they are about to collapse and to spend big on them, to ensure maximum flavour. That guidance is broadly sound. But let’s get real. This is already a salad of many punchy flavours. Fantastic tomatoes are preferable, but they don’t have to do much heavy lifting. Given a liberal sprinkling of salt to draw out their meagre flavour, even the worst tomatoes will suffice.
On the vinaigrette front, do you need one? Draining tomatoes as a base, adding garlic, oil, vinegar and anchovies etc, is a lot of faff when, essentially, panzanella is self-saucing. Simply combine the base ingredients, plus crushed garlic, seasoning and finely chopped anchovies, vigorously mix it all together – which helps break the components down at their edges – and then assess where you are in terms of wetness (primarily determined by how ripe your chopped tomatoes are). Work from there, adding olive oil sufficient to grease the interaction of the bread and vegetables, and – if the capers or olives have failed to impart enough zing – a few drops of white wine vinegar for extra acieeeeeeeed.
Without wishing to sound like a harrumphing Tory backbencher, is there anything people won’t put avocado in these days? In panzanella, it’s a firm avoca-no from How to Eat.
Adding cauliflower seems like a dark northern European cloud in this clear, blue Mediterranean context. Radishes sound a similar dour Protestant note amid this Catholic riot of colour. Adding rocket is, simply, bizarre.
Beans of any description threaten heaviness where there should be light. Feta can drag, too. It adds a claggy element to what should be the smooth interaction of slickly moist ingredients. Similarly, adding boiled eggs (a hangover from a time when any egg was a treat?) or tuna, makes no sense here. As everyone knows, untreated, mayo-less tinned tuna is one of the driest substances on the planet. It will turn your salad into a protein-packed slog.
From dried fruit to oranges, cured meats to asparagus, there is no end to the ways people will try to divert panzanella from the path of true righteousness. Chillies and mint, in particular, seem like additions that set it on an entirely different path. In the mouth as in the garden, mint is one of the most invasive herbs, imbuing all it touches, no matter how briefly, with a profound flavour of, well, mint. Who wants that in panzanella?
You may choose to serve your panzanella communally, from some huge central bowl or platter, in the frankly misguided belief that, while sitting in Bedford, Bolton or Belfast, it will transform your family into the kind of inexplicably happy, multi-generational tribe you see enjoying la bella vita outside a Tuscan farmhouse in TV adverts for olive oil.
In reality, that is a recipe for disaster. There are lot of difficult-to-manipulate elements in this salad that will defy any attempt – huge spoon, ladle-like apparatus, universally useless salad servers or tongs – to neatly serve yourself from any central mound. You will end up with more panzanella on the table than in your mouths.
Instead, serve the panzanella in individual deep, wide bowls (not plates or you will be chasing it around for weeks), and do not worry about prettifying it. You may come across platters of artfully layered panzanella or indeed instructions it should be served on toast, like a sprawling, out-of-control bruschetta. Poppycock! It needs no arrangement, no basil garnish, no crouton titfer. This is a dish that actively benefits from its ingredients being jumbled together and – unlike so much confrontationally messy Italian food – its glistening colours and textures create a visual stunner no matter how haphazardly you dish it up.
“Fork or spoon,” you ask? To which the only obvious answer is both. Arguably a salad that leaves a soup residue, this “deconstructed gazpacho” as one BTL wag once had it, demands a fork to spear combinations of ingredients and a spoon to finally clear up.
Stifling summer days when turning the cooker on and toiling over it is anathema. Hot nights when you want a refreshingly liquid meal. Long lethargic evenings when you need to fill your belly without feeling full and without meaningfully exerting yourself.
With such a circus of ingredients, you are talking less about precisely and elegantly pairing a fluid to create mythical third flavours, than, on a sweltering day, going for something cold, bright and assertive that can hold its own as it refreshes your palate. Good lager, hoppy pale ales, rosé and sharp, dry white wines will suffice. Don’t spend too much. If you are opening something you would prefer to savour, save it for another time.
So, panzanella, how do you eat yours?