Like the classic Salade Niçose, panzanella is a quintessential summer salad. But if you have access to good quality tomatoes (I’m particularly fond of Piennolo or Iberiko winter tomatoes), the tomato and bread salad can be a gorgeously transportive dish, evocative of warm Tuscan summers.
With the name panzanella believed to derive from both ‘pane’, meaning ‘bread’, and ‘zanella’, meaning ‘soup bowl’, the Italian salad is typically associated with Tuscany, made using stale, moistened bread, tomatoes, and an olive oil-based dressing.
With bread having been a Mediterranean staple for millennia, panzanella is thought to have been invented out of necessity, as a means of utilising stale bread. Without modern preservatives, bread would typically be dried and eaten up to months later, with inventive recipes introduced, including the likes of both panzanella and gazpacho. Yet it wasn’t until the 16th century, at the earliest, that tomatoes were used – after having been brought back to Europe from the Americas. Onions were instead used alongside the bread.
Today, tomatoes and stale bread are the key components, but many recipes call for myriad additional ingredients. This panzanella recipe, however, is fairly simple, showcasing good quality tomatoes and Italian bread, with a dressing that brings everything together. Considering the fact that so few ingredients are used, it’s worth investing in the best quality tomatoes you can afford, as they make a huge amount of difference to the overall dish, with the water extracted also used in the dressing. As for the bread, I’d suggest using something with a firm crumb structure to prevent it from falling apart. In Tuscany, traditional Tuscan bread is generally used, but focaccia, ciabatta, and even sourdough work well. The bread should also be very dry, ideally dried in the oven on a low heat if not already stale.
- 1 kg ripe tomatoes cut into wedges (see photo)
- 350 g stale bread such as focaccia, ciabatta, sourdough, etc. (dry in the oven on low if not stale)
- 150 ml good quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small shallot finely diced
- 1 large garlic clove minced
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 2 anchovies (optional)
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- Sea salt
- Small bunch of basil leaves only
- Place the chopped tomatoes in a colander set over a bowl. Generously season with salt and toss to coat. Leave to drain for at least 15 minutes, catching the water in the bowl beneath the colander.
- While the tomatoes drain, cut the bread into cubes and begin to make the dressing by mixing the finely chopped shallot, garlic and anchovies (if using) with the Dijon mustard and vinegar.
- Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly, followed by the drained tomato juice – also continuing to whisk constantly. Once combined, season with salt and pepper to taste, then pour into a large bowl with the tomatoes and bread.
- Leave to sit for at least 20 minutes before serving.
Related: How To Make: Pasta e Fagioli