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Fresh Take: Tuscan Tomato & Bread Salad

by Toni Lydecker, photo credit: The Florida Tomato Committee

In Italy, as here, the tomato enters its full glory in mid-summer. Then it’s time to marinate diced raw tomatoes in olive oil, basil, garlic and a little salt. Dress freshly cooked pasta, or strain out some of the juices and spoon the mixture onto crostini spread with goat cheese or tapenade. Another great summer meal for a leisure-loving solo cook: Lay slices of Italian Fontina or Taleggio cheese on a piece of crusty bread. Add tomato and sweet onion slices, sprinkle with a fresh or dried herb of your choice, and toast until the cheese melts.

Panzanella, a tomato and bread salad, is one of those Tuscan recipes devised by thrifty cooks to use the season’s bounty while salvaging the region’s coarse, salt-free bread, which goes from fresh to stone hard in a single day. The idea is to soak the bread in water, squeeze out the excess water and crumble the bread into a bowl with the other salad ingredients.

When the proportions and seasonings are dead on, this is one of the most delightful salads you’ll ever taste. Even in Tuscany, though, panzanella can be marred by a bit too much vinegar or onion, or by standing so long the salad earns its name, “little swamp.” And here, where even our best “Italian bread” is a far cry from Tuscan bread, making authentic panzanella is pretty much a lost cause.

That probably explains why I’ve never encountered an attempt at traditional panzanella in an American restaurant.  Instead, chefs mix toasted bread cubes—croutons, that is—into the salad. The truth is, this substitution works quite well as long as you use decent bread. Allow the salad to sit for just a few minutes and the tomato juices will moisten the bread cubes without turning them to mush.

So, if ever you’re sitting on a terrace overlooking the Tuscan countryside in mid-summer, be sure to order the genuine article. Until then, enjoy this delicious version of panzanella.

Panzanella  (Tuscan Tomato and
Bread Salad)

Makes 1 serving

1 large slice country-style bread, white or whole-wheat
1 small ripe tomato, stemmed
1/4 small cucumber, peeled
1 or 2 scallions
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 or teaspoons red wine vinegar
Several basil leaves, torn
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Arugula leaves, torn in pieces (optional)

Cut the bread in cubes and toast it over medium heat in a toaster oven until crisp but only lightly browned (alternatively, toast the bread in a dry skillet, over low heat, stirring from time to time). Dice the tomato and cucumber; thinly slice the
scallion, including some of the green part. Combine the tomato, cucumber and scallion in a bowl with the olive oil, vinegar, basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir and let stand for 5 minutes.

©Toni Lydecker 2006


Toni Lydecker writes often on Italian cooking and is the author of Serves One: Simple Meals to Savor When You’re on Your Own. For more of her writing, visit www.tonilydecker.com.

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