Panzanella — it literally means “bread small basket,” according to Google translate, which probably provides no motivation whatsoever for you to make it. If I told you that what it actually should translate to is, “delicious salad of marinated bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and big honking chunks of fresh mozzarella,” then maybe you’d be a bit more inclined to give it a try.
In a recipe with so few ingredients, you really want to use high-quality ingredients, with one exception: the bread. While a high quality, rustic, country loaf would make a delicious panzanella, the first step involves drying out the bread to make it extra absorbent, so why waste a top-notch loaf? A panzanella is the perfect use for a supermarket baguette — all the better if you bought it the day before! The goal is to turn the bread pieces into thirsty little sponges, eager to sop up the delicious juices in which they swim over the course of an afternoon.
Apart from the bread, you really do want quality ingredients. A good, fresh mozzarella is a must; now is not the time for pre-shredded pizza cheese or Cheez Whiz — pull out all of the stops and get the good stuff! I used BelGioso’s Fresh Mozzarella All-Natural Cheese, but any fresh mozzarella will do. Adding some curls of parmesan would really take this salad above and beyond, but if you’re just going for the “A” here, stick with the mozzarella…no “A+” needed.
Fresh basil and good tomatoes are also essentials. If you don’t have fresh basil, abort your panzanella mission now; you might as well make a PB&J without peanut butter…or jelly. Garden-fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, harvested 10 minutes prior to chopping work best in this recipe because they’re bursting with sun-ripened tomato tinkle that marries with the vinaigrette and gets absorbed by the bread. But, I realize that not everybody has access to Garden of Eden-caliber tomatoes, or even a Topsy Turvy Tomato Planter, so you can make do with grocery store varieties. Some grocery store tomatoes can be passable in a pinch, but you may need to up your vinaigrette amount to compensate for comparatively dry tomatoes.
Finally, the recipe itself is very non-labor-intensive, but you do need the entire day to let the panzanella magic work to its fullest. The good news, though, is that the vast majority of this time is totally hands-off! This is a great recipe for a hot day due to minimal oven use and big, satisfying, summery flavors. Serve your bread small basket as a hearty picnic side or add grilled chicken or shrimp to turn your panzanella into the perfect August dinner.
1 loaf of marginal quality bread, cut into ~1″ cubes (baguettes, sourdough, and Italian loaves all work well)
Olive oil cooking spray
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
3 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, chiffonaded (i.e. make a stack of leaves, roll them up, and use a sharp knife to slice thin ribbons)
3 cloves garlic, crushed with flat side of knife and minced
1 medium vidalia (sweet) onion, cut in half then thinly sliced
3 large, very ripe beefsteak tomatoes (preferably garden-fresh), or 6 roma tomatoes, diced, with juices reserved
1 cucumber, diced (use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds if using a hothouse cucumber)
8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
On the morning of your panzanella expedition, preheat the oven to 350 degrees farenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spread bread cubes in a single layer. Spray bread cubes with the olive oil spray, and sprinkle the garlic powder over the bread. Place in oven, and let bake 20 minutes. Shut off oven, and let bread cubes sit in the cooling oven to dry out for the rest of the morning.
Around noon-ish (assuming you’re making a dinner panzanella), prepare the vinaigrette. In a VERY large bowl (you need lots of tossing room), whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, chives, basil, garlic, and onion. Add tomatoes (with their juices), cucumber, and mozzarella, and toss together. Add dried bread cubes, and toss to thoroughly coat all of the bread with the vinaigrette. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and place in refrigerator to chill until dinner time, ~4-5 hours, tossing every hour. Serve, and enjoy! This salad is even better the next day, so leftovers are a very good thing!