Now that the peasant dish panzanella has achieved near-cult status among American aficionados of authentic Tuscan cuisine, we are seeing all kinds of inauthentic variations in fancy restaurants
1 pound coarse, Italian-style bread
1 pound English cucumbers
1 pound sweet onions (such as Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Maui)
2 teaspoons salt plus additional to taste
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, quartered
1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves
6 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
pepper to taste
1. Cut the crusts of of the bread, tear the bread into large chunks, and let stale for a week (see box).
2. When ready to make panzanella, peel the cucumbers, leaving alternating bands of peeled and unpeeled areas. Slice into rounds as thinly as possible. Peel the onions, cut in half, and slice as thinly as possible. Toss the cucumber and the onion in a colander with the salt. Place a weight over all, and let drain for 20 minutes.
3. While the cucumber and onion are draining, cut the tomatoes into thin slices, and measure out the basil leaves.
4. When ready to serve the salad, soak the bread in cold water, then squeeze out the water (see box). Place the soaked bread in a large bowl. Mix in the cucumbers and onions, the tomatoes and the basil. Toss with the olive oil and the vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Now that the peasant dish panzanella has achieved near-cult status among American aficionados of authentic Tuscan cuisine, we are seeing all kinds of inauthentic variations in fancy restaurants. That's fine, as long as they taste good. But if your goal is to reproduce the simple, refreshing bread salad that Tuscans love to eat in the summertime, you have to find the right kind of bread, wet it properly, and, most important, understand the kind of bread texture you're looking for in the finished salad. Remember: the bread in traditional panzanella is not like croutons. It is not chewy. It is not crusty. To the surprise of many Americans having the dish for the first time in Tuscany, the bread is light, a bit wet, airy, just short of mushy -- something, believe it or not, like light-style, feathery matzo balls that have been broken up with a spoon. Serves 8