After some testing, tasting, more testing, and a lottttt more tasting—and then, okay, just a little more tasting—we're excited to announce the winner: an Early Summer Panzanella that comes from Sarah Hornung of Sarah Loves Salad (fitting!).
We sat down—er, emailed—with Sarah to learn more about her recipe, and what she thinks about our request that she make us 1,000 portions so we never have to eat anything else again:
FOOD52: How'd you develop this recipe? And has it changed from the first time you made it?
SARAH HORNUNG: Years ago, I watched Ina make panzanella on an episode of Barefoot Contessa. I hadn't otherwise heard of the dish, but I immediately wanted to try it. After initially following Ina's recipe very closely, I've been making it and fiddling with it ever since.
This version wasn't really a "recipe" when I first made it. It was a Sunday afternoon out at my family's house in Connecticut and I had a few slices of amazing sourdough bread from Ithaca Bakery. It was in my head to use them to make panzanella, and when I realized that I didn't have any red onions left, I thought, "Maybe scapes instead?"
It's changed from the first time I made it. Originally, I made it with scape pesto and with classic basil pesto—I used the scape pesto 50:50 with grapeseed oil to marinate the bread and peppers—and then I used classic basil pesto for the dressing. That's a good version too; it has slightly less garlic bite than this one.
F52: What are your favorite ways to riff on the salad?
SH: Oh man, I could go on for a while here. I have a really good friend who developed a gluten allergy, and he's frequently part of the group that I'm cooking for, so when he's around, I make halloumi croutons.
I've also fiddled around with the dressings and used basil pesto, olive oil, and red wine vinegar, and an improvised bacon vinaigrette to dress it. And I've added other summer veggies that were around like: grilled wax beans and grilled green beans and grilled or raw snap peas and radishes, all of which are really great additions.
I've also made the whole dish with lemon-Parmesan pesto too, but that might be so much riffing that it's a different dish.
F52: Why do you think this is the greatest salad of all time?
SH: I mean, grilled bread, right? But I'd also say, my favorite salads are ones that are made up of a combination of raw and cooked vegetables. I don't want to say whenever I'm grilling, sautéing, or roasting vegetables I think about making extra to include in a salad, but very frequently I do. It goes without saying that you can really deepen the flavor and change the texture of a vegetable by cooking it, and so I think that incorporating a really cooked vegetable (or element) can really transform a salad.
F52: What's the most memorable salad you've ever tasted? Where were you? Why was it so darn good?
SH: Yikes, that's SO hard to answer. I think having caprese for the first time when I was probably around 10 was really eye-opening. I did not know that such a short list of ingredients could produce salad where the flavors complement each other so well and really explode in your mouth. When I was in college, I had Thai beef salad for the first time—obviously, that's a lot of ingredients, but I felt similarly, whoa, what an incredible, complementary explosion of flavor and texture. More recently, I had an amazing fig-fennel-Parmesan-almond salad at June in Brooklyn that I love and have made a version of.
Food52: What's your most splattered, stained, dog-eared cookbook?
SH: Donna Hay's Off The Shelf. I've had it since college and it was a huge part of my learning how to cook; it's very splattered and stained. And Nigel Slater's Tender which is so beautiful, I try to keep it clean.
Food52: And your can’t-cook-without kitchen tool?
SH: My chef's knife. I've had one 8-inch chef's knife for almost 15 years now. The handle just cracked and I've investigated sending it in to be fixed, but it's so hard to part with even temporarily. And maybe a salad spinner. A salad spinner is a actually great way to wash (and dry) a wide range of vegetables.
Food52: You’re on a desert island and you can have one dessert. What is it?
SH: Pie. 100%. Probably strawberry-rhubarb. Maybe apple.