I was introduced to bread salads when I was eight years old, my first summer in Italy. Our neighbors on the farm my parents had acquired were hard core peasant farmers, living a truly subsistence existence (which was about to change dramatically, but that’s another story) where everything eaten at their table was raised, grown, and processed by them and nothing went to waste, including stale leftover bread.
Once a week or so, Mita baked a classic salt-less Tuscan bread in her wood-fired oven. She stored the bread in a wooden chest called a madia and sliced it up for every meal.
But by the end of the week it was pretty hard—what Italians call pane raffermato or “firmed up” bread—and then it would be soaked in water, squeezed dry, and crumbled into a bowl with fat juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, slivered red onion, and basil, then moistened with olive oil and sharp red vinegar. The bread was not a garnish, like croutons, but a solid part of the dish, actually extending the vegetables by about fifty percent.
I loved it immediately and devoured it whenever I came upon it. Back then, it wasn’t at all fashionable—really something you only found in a Tuscan farmhouse kitchen.
As a young cook in the U.S., I struggled to recreate that Tuscan farmhouse panzanella until I realized the bread was never going to work the same way unless it was that very specific Tuscan bread that becomes hard as a rock when stale but has the structure, when soaked in water, to soften but not dissolve. Without Tuscan bread, I made it like everyone else who was trying to make the newly-chic salad—with toasted bread chunks that would soften as they absorb the dressing and vegetable juices. But it was never the same.
As I explored other cuisines, I discovered other bread salads I loved equally—like fattoush, a Lebanese salad layered with broken shards of stale pita, dressed with bright lemon and garlic dressing, and lavishly showered with sour sumac.
Then in Astoria, Queens, at a Greek restaurant on the edge of the park, I fell in love with a Cretan bread salad that used hard barley rusks, capers, and feta cheese, as well as salad greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The result is similar to but more impactful than croutons: It's something about the contrasts of crunchy bread and really ripe summer vegetables that creates the structure for the salad.
Once you see it like that, you also see that it is the most flexible salad imaginable, one you can make differently each time you make it, depending on what you have on hand. Here is my perfect combination, taking a little bit from each tradition and combining them into what I sometimes jokingly refer to as “patouche” or “fanzanella.”
This should really just be considered a road map, and substitutions should be freely used and explored: different kinds of toasted hard bread; different herbs, different kinds of onions; et cetera. It all depends on what you have on hand and what you like.
- 2 pita breads, split and toasted
- 2 really fresh big beefsteak tomatoes (ideally picked in your backyard or from the farmers market)
- 1/2 cup mixed cherry tomatoes
- 1 cucumber
- 2 scallions
- 1 bunch radishes
- 1 small head romaine lettuce
- 2 tablespoons sumac
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 pound French sheep's milk feta cheese
- 1/2 cup whole basil leaves