Monday, 8 June 2015

Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)

Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)

I always love trying new dishes and recipes, making variations on familiar ones, experimenting with ingredients, spices and techniques. But there are some traditional recipes that I consider almost perfect in their original, classical version and that I therefore like to make without any particular innovation or personal addition. And panzanella belongs with honor to this group.

Panzanella is a recipe from the Italian region of Tuscany; even if it can be found with small local and/or family variations all across the region and even in other Italian areas, the main ingredient for this recipe is stale bread soaked in water or in a mix of water and vinegar.  In fact panzanella is one of those recipes born out of necessity as a way to use old bread and make it appetizing with the addition of fresh vegetables and extra virgin olive oil.
Like many other traditional recipes, panzanella's origins are not totally clear, but are for sure centuries old and probably date back to the Middle Ages.
Some legends say it's a dish of rural tradition created by peasants mixing old bread (at that time bread was baked only once a week or less) and the veggies available in the field; others believe that it comes from the custom of old mariners from Tuscany and Liguria to soak their bread (which was dried to keep during their long travels across the sea) in sea water before seasoning and eating with their meals.
But whatever the origins of panzanella, it most likely was conceived as a bread and onion dish. 
Modern panzanella is usually made mixing the stale soaked bread with ripe tomatoes, onions, cucumber and basil. But tomato was not available in Europe until the end of the sixteenth century when it was imported from the Americas by Spanish colonizers and probably was added to panzanella only after the Second World War.
Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)

Panzanella is mentioned in Boccaccio's Decameron where it is called "pan lavato" (literally "washed bread"). But in the Middle Ages this was probably the only way to make old bread still edible! 
The Florentine poet and artist Bronzino, who worked at the Medici's court in the 1500's, wrote an ode to a dish made of onions, cucumber, greens, basil and bread, which much resembles the modern panzanella minus the tomatoes. He says: 
chi vuol trapassar sopra le stelle / en’tinga il pane e mangia a tirapelle / un’insalata di cipolla trita / colla porcellanetta e citriuoli / vince ogni altro piacer di questa vita / considerate un po’ s’aggiungessi bassilico / e ruchetta
The artist compares eating this salad to a trip over the stars; he doesn't mention tomatoes but onion and cucumber along with a forgotten herb (the porcellanetta), basil and wild rocket. 

I love this simple yet delicious salad at least as much as Bronzino did and make it very often, especially in summer when tomatoes are juicy and tasty - yes, I prefer the modern version of panzanella, with the addition of ripe tomatoes.
As the recipe requires few ingredients - and their are used raw - how tasty and enjoyable the final dish is, mostly depends on the quality of the ingredients used. And bread plays a primary role in the dish.
The very original recipe for panzanella calls for Tuscan bread, that's generally known for being unsalted. But what's more important for this recipe is Tuscan bread's peculiar texture: when soaked in liquid it doesn't become soggy but remains firm and holds well its shape. A feature that not many breads have, the closest being sourdough and country breads.
And to be honest, according to my experience, outside Tuscany it is almost impossible to find the real Tuscan bread, since most of the times bread sold for being Tuscan is just without salt. 
The bread I prefer at the moment for a good panzanella is my homemade sourdough bread; alternatively I use good quality artisanal sourdough (my favorite in Dubai is Baker and Spice bread).
Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)

Going to the preparation method, there are many (mainly non Italian) recipes in which bread is toasted before soaking, but this is not the orthodox way of making panzanella and I wouldn't recommend unless the bread you have on hand is not at all similar to Tuscan or to a good country bread.
But even following Tuscan recipes you'll find small differences in the way the salad is prepared:
There are those keeping the crust on the bread and those removing it. I think the choice depends on the type of bread used as well as on its staleness: in general I like to keep the crust but if it is still too chewy and firm after being moistened in water, it's better to cut it away.
Also some recipes ask to soak the bread in water (or water and vinegar) for a while, I prefer to run it quickly under water to keep it more consistent. But anyway if the bread is too dry and / or doesn't absorb well the liquid it may be necessary to sprinkle with additional water to have the desired moisture.

With regard to the ingredients, as said before, traditional panzanella is made of few vegetables, bread, extra virgin olive oil and vinegar. Since tomatoes are a quite recent addition, if you want to try the simplest version praised by Bronzino, just leave them out and add some rocket leaves and/or purslane if available.
And on the contrary you can find richer versions of the dish, not properly orthodox, in which other ingredients are added to the basic ones, like anchovies, eggs, celery, or cheese, and even in Tuscany, in the Garfagnana area, there is a dish called "panzanella del prete" (literally "priest panzanella") where along with the traditional panzanella's ingredients there are also fennel, carrots, diced ham, cheese, anchovies, preserved tuna, boiled eggs and capers are used. For my liking the classic panzanella is still the best, as I think that so many ingredients overwhelm the main protagonists of the dish, bread and fresh vegetables.

Also dishes similar to panzanella, with ligthly different names, can be found in other regions of central Italy like Umbria, Marche and Lazio.

Going back to the recipe, panzanella is best prepared about one hour before serving, to give time for all the flavours to combine but it doesn't keep well for more than a day as the fresh vegetables tend to be ruined by the vinegar, so it's better to make the amount that you will consume.
Also it's difficult to give precise proportion of the ingredients, as you can add more or less of any according to your preference. In general bread should make up about half the volume of this salad, but I personally like to add more vegetables (about two third of the total). As soon as you start making it you will realize how you like it and I'm sure you won't stop to serve it, especially in summer.

Panzanella is usually served as an appetizer but can be also a fresh, summer alternative to a pasta dish (what in Italy it's called primo piatto). But it will be perfect also for the lunch box as well as for a picnic, as it travels and keeps well, or a tasty side for some simple grilled fish or meat. 

Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)

Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)
serves 2 to 3
3 - 4 thick slices of stale Tuscan bread or white country bread (about 200 grams)
1 very crunchy cucumber (I like to leave few strips of the skin on)
1 medium red onion
2 - 3 ripe plum tomatoes
large handful of basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil
white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Pass the slices of bread under running water and let sit in a bowl to soften.
Slice the red onion very thinly, place in a bowl, sprinkle with some of the white wine vinegar and let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes to take the pungent flavor off.
Thinly slice the cucumber, dice the tomatoes preserving all their juice, and place in a large bowl.
When the bread has softened a bit and is springy to the touch, crumble it with your hands or dice with a knife (removing the crust if necessary) and add it to the bowl with tomatoes and cucumber.
If the bread is still too hard sprinkle some more water or vinegar (remember that we are going to add oil and vinegar to the whole dish which the bread will absorb too); if on the contrary you have added too much water, simply squeeze the bread with your fingers before adding to the bowl.
When the onions have lost some of their strong flavor, drain and add to the bowl. Season with a pinch of salt, some freshly ground black  pepper, a generous dose of olive oil, a splash of white wine vinegar and toss until well combined.
Set aside for about one hour before serving, then add the basil leaves and serve.
Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad)

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