While you’ll often find this rustic countryside salad with stale bread, ripe tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and basil, the original version did not in fact have tomatoes. The Italian peninsula didn’t get tomatoes until the sixteenth century (from the Americas via Spain). For another century, the Italians didn’t cook or eat them since they were suspicious of them and only use them as ornamental plants. During this time, the Florentine Mannerist painter Bronzino (a contemporary of Michelangelo) penned a sort of recipe-poem about a dish that in all ways resembles a tomato-less panzanella, a dish he compares to a “trip across the stars.” It combined stale bread, arugula, basil, cucumber, and onion.
The key to this salad is the stale Tuscan bread, which should take up half the salad. It has an incredible consistency when soaked in water: Rather than becoming soggy, it holds its shape and springiness. The best breads to use are country breads that have a good, dark crust on them—if possible, even wood-fired. Sourdough is a good consistency, but the flavor can be overpowering in this salad (Tuscan bread is saltless and therefore very neutral in dishes). Many non-Italian recipes for panzanella call for toasting the bread, but this is unorthodox and won’t produce the same results. If you can, plan for this salad and buy the bread at least 2 days before you need it, perhaps even slicing it so that it can start drying out.
However you choose to make this—with a little more of this, a little less of that—keep in mind that the bread should make up half of the volume of this salad. NOTE: This dish is best eaten about an hour after preparing, to give time for the flavors to combine. That said, it does not keep well for more than a day because the fresh ingredients tend to get ruined by the vinegar. —Emiko
3 to 4
4 to 5
thick slices of stale, springy country bread with a good crust
small red onion
1 to 2 tablespoons
red wine vinegar, plus more to taste
medium, crunchy cucumber, thinly sliced (you could also peel if you like)
Pass the slices of bread under running water and let sit in a bowl to soften while you prepare the other ingredients.
Slice the red onion very thinly and place in a small bowl. Sprinkle with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the red wine vinegar and cover with cool water. Let sit 10 minutes (this will take some of the edge off the raw onion).
When the bread pieces are springy to the touch, tear and crumble the bread in your hands (depending on the type and freshness of your bread, the crusts may be too hard. If so, you may wish to remove them, but some like the chewiness of the crust). If the bread is still too hard, you can sprinkle on some more water, but keep in mind that you’ll be adding vinegar and oil to the salad as well, which the bread will also soak up. If you have added too much water, simply give your bread a squeeze to remove the excess liquid before adding to the salad. Place the bread in a large bowl with the cucumber and arugula.
Drain and add the onion to the salad. Season with a good pinch of salt, a few twists of pepper, a healthy dose of olive oil, a splash or two of red wine vinegar, and toss until well combined. Add the basil leaves, torn into pieces just before serving.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.