I could give up many foods without a great sense of loss, but carbs – particularly bread – is not one of them. When the weather gets hot, my husband and I eat a lot of salads for dinner. We eat salad all of the time but in the summer months, instead of salads being a side, they are the main event. What follows isn’t really a recipe; it is more a method. There are almost infinite ways to vary the ingredients, as long as you keep the overall balance of flavors and textures intact.
I’ve read recipes where you soak day-old bread in water and squeeze out all of the liquid. I tried making panzanella that way and frankly prefer the way I do it. Why soak the bread in water when it can absorb all of the wonderful juices from ripe tomatoes? You can use almost any kind of good rustic bread. I happen to have bought a sourdough boule, but I have used multi-grain or whole wheat farmer-style breads successfully as well. Take whatever bread you choose and cut it into 2-inch dice. Place the bread on a baking sheet in a cold oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees F. When the oven comes to temperature, turn it off, but leave the bread in there, with the oven door closed, for at least 20 minutes or overnight. That will form the base of your salad. How much bread you use is really up to you. A half boule can easily feed 4 people.
Several hours before you are ready to serve the salad, place the dried bread cubes in a large bowl. We have entered farmer’s market season so getting beautiful heirloom tomatoes should not be a problem. You want LOTS as well as the lovely little Persian cucumbers, although the seedless English cucumbers will also work. I like to have a thinly sliced onion – yellow, Vidalia or red – and pitted olives and capers. Start cutting up the vegetables and layering them over the bread cubes in the bowl. Once you have these basics, you can play around. I made my salad up to this point and added in a few of the additional vegetables I mention below, set it on my counter, covered, until about 45 minutes before I am ready to serve. My other ingredients and the dressing will go on about 30 to 45 minutes ahead of serving and I will toss the salad. Tonight, I am using marinated cooked shrimp, but some times I use grilled, diced chicken or thinly sliced salami and coppa or jamon. If you want to go vegetarian, just use a good diced cheese – like a fontina or a sharp provolone, cut into small cubes or large julienne.
You will want LOTS of fresh herbs – the more the merrier. I bought some beautiful garlic chives at the farmer’s market on Tuesday, so I am adding lots of that and an entire bunch of flat-leaf parsley. I really enjoy the slightly anise taste of fennel as well as the bright green crunch it provides, so I will add both sliced stems or bulb and the feathery ends that look like dill. If you are not a fan of fennel, you can get the same basic texture by using celery or even Napa cabbage. I have marinated artichoke hearts, but sometimes I will add roasted peppers instead. I hope that you are getting the idea here that you can tailor the salad to your personal tastes and what is fresh and available. The end result should be as attractive to the eye as it is to the palate.
As I mentioned above, about 30 to 45 minutes before I plan on serving, I add my protein and dressing and toss the salad. I like to make a garlicky vinaigrette with fennel seed and some Dijon mustard, but use whatever you like – just make it yourself. When I am ready to plate the salad, I have a bed of arugula which I also picked up at the farmer’s market and which I lightly dress with a bit of my homemade dressing and I pile the bread salad on top. You need nothing more than a glass of a crisp white or Rose and maybe some fresh melon and cherries for dessert. If I have any leftovers, I eat them for lunch the next day. The weather is perfect and our terrace is blooming so tonight we dine al fresco!