Writing about cooking with scraps has expanded my cooking horizons and made me more comfortable with all sorts of could-be discard. But it’s also been a personal journey in learning to love stale bread. I went from being extraordinarily skeptical of any vaguely mushy use for day-old bread to willingly putting it in stuffing, then soup, then eggs—and liking it.
Yet I knew there was another hurdle to cross: panzanella.
I make, and love, many a bread salad, but I always, always toast the bread first (because, fear of mush). But I also know that for an authentic panzanella, bread should not be toasted, and because I am a rule-follower, I felt I needed to pause my unorthodox ways and try panzanella as originally intended. At least once, anyway.
To understand this recipe, you need to understand the bread used here to make it. I know it's common to call the bread for panzanella ‘stale,’ but I wish we could say 'day-old.' Tuscan bread is made with no salt, a tradition that goes back to when salt was highly taxed and peasant farmers used it only for essential things like curing cheeses and meats. Bread can be made without salt, but dries out within a day... which is why Tuscans have a zillion recipes for using dry bread (pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, acquacotta, etc). To prepare panzanella, the bread is literally soaked, then squeezed out, crumbled, and tossed with salad ingredients. The problem is that in the U.S. it is hard to find salt-free bread, and the breads that I have tried to use there to make panzanella become gooey when soaked.
Just a few of the (tasty) toasty bread offenders:
So how to proceed? As my fellow Food52ers know, when you’re looking for a recipe that at once adheres to a classic as intended, yet still has a dash of opinionated spunk in it, you need to look no farther than pierino’s vast collection.
Pierino says “nothing spoils a panzanella more than soggy bread except for, on the other end of the spectrum, a dry crouton.” To get the optimal texture, he recommends it be two to three days old—“stale matters”—and explains that "it really only needs a spritz of water and not a deep soak. It should be wet and softer than a crouton but not by much. It's not supposed to be baby food.”
This level of attention results in bread with just the right amount of bite: I was sold. And combined with the sharpness from vinegar and microgreens, well, this is the best panzanella I’ve ever had.
I can now say that I'm a card-carrying member of the “I heart stale bread” club—care to join me?
- 1 pound mixed heirloom tomatoes
- 1/2 pound cherry tomatoes, heirloom or not
- 2 cups stale bread, crusts removed
- Cold water
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
- 2 cups mixed microgreens, or whatever sharp flavored small greens you can assemble or forage for
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Sea salt and pepper
Of course, since we’re getting nit-picky, we should note that the original version of panzanella didn’t include tomatoes, either. Perhaps you’d like to try green panzanella?
Know of a great recipe hiding in the Food52 archives that uses an overlooked kitchen scrap (anything from commonly discarded produce parts to stale bread to bones and more)? Tell me about it in the comments: I want to know how you're turning what would otherwise be trash into a dish to treasure!