Ricki Cooking School, Chapter 4 – Panzanella

It is time.

It should not be time yet. Were I a good local/organic/seasonal cook, this wouldn’t be going up – or even be made – until August. But dudes, I crave this salad. I start making it as soon as I can vaguely justify the purchase of tomatoes in the supermarket. It is better if you wait. But I didn’t.

So, for a panzanella, what you need are:

1. Tomatoes

2. Bread

Everything else you put in is your choice. Actually, even the tomatoes are sort of optional; you can make a “spring” panzanella with, oh, say, asparagus and radishes (I have; it’s delicious) or a “fall” panzanella with Brussels sprouts and pears (I haven’t; I will). But the non-qualified panzanella is tomatoes and bread.

I wrote about how I do the bread here but I’ll repeat it in case you don’t feel the urge to click my link and give me another page view. And also because it’s the most important part of the panzanella. Now, this is not necessarily the traditional way to do it. A lot of recipes would just have you throw in slightly stale bread in chunks; some might have you toast it. But this is how I do it, and it’s delicious.

1. Get good bread. I like a sourdough, a Tuscan, a Country – something thick and dense and crusty.

2. Cut in thick slices. Lay slices on baking sheet. Set oven to Broil. (Or use your toaster oven.)

3. Drizzle bread with olive oil and sprinkle with good salt – sea salt is a good idea; kosher salt is fine. Not table. Never table. Why do you even still have table salt?

4. Put under broiler or toaster and watch it. When it’s nice and brown, take it out. This can take anywhere from 3 – 6 minutes; the key is, WATCH IT. Every variety of bread I buy takes a different amount of time.

5. While it’s broiling, get out a garlic clove and slice it so you have a good chunk to hold in your hand and a raw edge. I usually just lop the top off the clove; if it’s big, you can cut it in half.

6. When the bread is done, take it out and rub the garlic piece all over it. The bread must be hot when you do this, so be careful. Spear the garlic piece on a fork if you have to.

7. Flip the bread. Re-oil if necessary. Re-salt. Brown. Rub garlic. The browning will take slightly less time the second time around than it did the first. WATCH THE BREAD. Do not leave the kitchen.

8. For the salad, take the bread out, and, once it’s cool enough to handle, cut or rip it into large bite-sized pieces.

This sounds complicated but it’s not. Toast olive-oil-ed bread. Rub with garlic. Done. It is also completely delicious.

Okay, so what about the rest of the salad? Well, get the best tomatoes you can find. Cut them into large bite-sized pieces. What else? I usually like some cannellini beans. Or Great Northern, but, while I prefer Great Northern in my favorite pasta dish (with broccoli rabe and sausage – I’ll post that some other time), I prefer cannellini here. I almost always use basil leaves, too, torn into fairly large pieces or julienned all pretty. If I can’t get basil, or if I want more greenery, I use arugula. The last time I did this, I also used spinach, because I was trying to go super-green. Another lettuce – romaine, radicchio, maybe butter or Boston, although those are a little soft – is fine, too, if you want more green. Also very good are fresh, fresh, fresh cucumbers, either in thin slices or somewhat larger chunks, and/or raw red onions in slices. Capers, which are included in some traditional recipes, or even olives never hurt anything. I’ve been known to throw in mozzarella, cubed, although not lately, because, even with the oil-soaked bread, I like to pretend this salad is healthy. Although a few curls of Parmesan would be nice. I have, in the past, put in corn, either raw or briefly sautéed, but I’ve decided not to do that anymore. You don’t really need to dress this salad, but I usually swirl in a drop of olive oil or a nice nut oil or something, and a splash of champagne vinegar or lemon juice, plus (always) a grind of pepper and maybe a sprinkle of salt, although I keep in mind that the bread is already salted. I’ve seen people recommend topping with roast beef or fairly rare steak slices, or grilled shrimp, or maybe tearing up some prosciutto or what have you. None of these are bad ideas.

In fact, with this salad, nothing is a bad idea. Just put in what you like. I make this differently almost every time I do it. Here is the thing – it’s hard to screw up something when you’ve started with delicious, oil-soaked, garlic-rubbed, toasted bread.

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