Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
From when I was 16 until the end of college, I worked every iteration of a thankless summer job. Most of them I block from my memory, but the one I remember most fondly is when I was the counter girl at a local bakery near my hometown. The staff was fun to work with, the bread was perfectly baked and came in a dizzying array of varieties, and the pastries were impossibly buttery. I was thrilled with the idea of having friendly, regular customers, including a boy who worked across the street and bought me books and flowers. I was 18, clumsy and shy, and after an impossibly long awkward period, I felt like I was finally growing into myself.
But what I remember most about that bakery is their homemade panzanella -- customers went nuts for it, buying it by the quart so that we almost always ran out by the end of the day. My father is Italian, born and bred, but had, for reasons unknown, never made it while I was growing up. Eating a salad made of bread? It was a revelation!
Panzanella is the platonic ideal of a summer meal, as far as I'm concerned. It's exactly what I need as a frugal cook -- the main ingredient, after all, is bread that's gone stale but shouldn't be thrown away. But past that utilitarian base, it allows you to take advantage of an entire crisper of summer vegetables, so long as you have some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and time to marinate. It's equal parts filling, cool, and improvisational -- which is why you should learn how to whip it up, sans recipe.
How to Make Panzanella Without a Recipe
1. You're going to need a loaf of stale bread (here's how to stale fresh bread in a pinch), extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, red onions, and basil. I like to use cherry or grape tomatoes and halve them length-wise, slice my onion as thinly as possible, and tear the basil up with my hands.
Don't have a combination of the last three vegetables, or want to use up wilting produce? Raid your crisper for peppers, cucumbers, snap peas -- really, any summer vegetable will do.
2. Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes.
3. Dress it liberally with olive oil and vinegar.
4. Mix in your tomatoes, onions, and basil.
4. Let it sit for a couple of hours, or overnight, in the fridge, then add salt and pepper to taste. Panzanella is the perfect lunch or light dinner this time of year.
If you're looking for some inspiration, check out:
Pea and Bacon Panzanella with Warm Vinaigrette
Winter Panzanella with Orange, Roasted Beets, and Pomegranate Seeds
Tell us: What's your favorite way to make panzanella?
Photos by James Ransom