Monday, July 19, 2010

Summer Panzanella Salad

This is a salad that truly celebrates ALL that is great about a sweet, summer-ripened tomato...which is much!

We love tomatoes and eat them year round...throwing even the most meager of ripened and semi-sweet tomatoes into winter salads. However...when summer rolls around and the most luscious of vine-ripened (or heirloom) tomatoes come to market, we take full advantage of savoring them at their peak. In addition to slipping them into fresh garden salads, whirring them into spicy gazpachos, or building them into beautiful capreses with flavorful pestos and drizzles of olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar, summer tomatoes are perfect for a delicious panzanella salad.

There are loads of ways to approach this Italian bread and tomato salad, but this is one of our favorites. It is adapted from a recipe I snagged at a dinner party. That particular version of this dish called for an olive oil dressing with a "splash" of red wine vinegar, and no additional components beyond the bread, tomatoes, fresh basil, and sliced red onion...pretty simple to make and definitely tasty. However, I wanted to amp up the flavor a bit so I tweaked the dressing a touch to brighten it a bit more, and added in pitted kalamata olives and fresh cucumber to give it a little more interest.

Beyond the great tomatoes, this salad is also about the bread...thus, the name "panzanella." Basically, you begin by making croutons from French bread (preferably unsalted). Many recipes will advise using day-old (or even week-old) bread. However, since I rarely think that far in advance, I typically buy a fresh baguette. I think if you get the "toasting" of your croutons right, and you use a baguette (more crusty surface area), you can get away with fresh. Oh...and these are croutons to love! They are great in Caesar salad...far surpassing anything you'll ever buy in a bag. And...they are super simple to make. Again, there are varying methods...namely whether to go with your oven or stove. I prefer using the stovetop (perhaps it's a control thing). I just think you get a great, crispy crouton that has just enough of a crunch (without being rock hard) and is perfectly golden. The trick is to cook them over a very low heat, and toss them regularly to ensure that they brown evenly.

Summer Panzanella Salad
serves 4 to 6

1 french bread baguette, cut into approximate 3/4" cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 to 3 tablespoons Italian seasoning (or mix of dried basil and oregano, whatever appeals to you)
2 teaspoons garlic powder (more if desired)
salt and pepper, to taste

3 pounds ripe red tomatoes, diced to approximate size of cubed bread
1 hothouse (or English) cucumber, quartered and diced to approximate size of tomatoes and bread
20 to 25 leaves fresh basil, torn into small pieces (or chiffonade leaves and lightly chop)
20 to 25 pitted kalamata olives, sliced
1/2 cup sliced red onion

2/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
salt and pepper, to taste

Begin by cubing your bread. I like using a French baguette because you get a bit more "crust" to your croutons. Using a serrated knife, just halve the baguette lengthwise and then cut each length into thirds or quarters, depending on size of baguette. Then slice each of the six (or eight) lengths of bread into 3/4" cubes.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Once butter is melted, add in cubed bread and toss to coat well with oil and butter mixture.

Reduce heat to low (this is important to getting that great crusty texture) and add seasoning. Again, toss in the seasonings you like, adding more or less than indicated here, as preferred. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, toss bread intermittently to ensure that all the pieces are getting heat (and brown up evenly). You'll keep this "watch and toss" routine up for about 8 to 10 minutes, during which time you can prep your other salad ingredients.

Between 10 and 12 minutes, your croutons should be lightly crisp and perfectly golden. Sample them as you near this time and, once they are done to your liking, then turn them out onto some foil to cool.

While your croutons cool, whisk together your dressing ingredients. You'll end up with about 1 cup of dressing. Set this aside.

Once your croutons have cooled, toss salad fixings (minus dressing) into a large bowl and set aside. About 10 to 15 minutes before serving, dress with about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Let dressed salad sit for about 10 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Add additional dressing, salt and/or pepper, if needed, just before serving.

This salad pairs really well with grilled fish or chicken.

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