My two go-to meals any time of year, but especially in the summer, are, in many ways, variations of the same thing – antipasto and panzanella salad. Growing up, antipasto was a weekend staple whenever company was coming and usually consisted of fresh mozzarella, soppressatta, olives, eggplant caponata, pepperoni, and provolone so sharp it’d make my nose run. Oh, and bread. So much delicious, chewy, Italian bread in long braided loaves covered in sesame seeds.
With summer nearly upon us and the reminder that sweet, juicy tomatoes do exist (buying tomatoes in the winter is so depressing, isn’t it?), panzanella takes many of the same flavors of antipasto and dresses them up in an easy one-bowl lunch or dinner that is totally satisfying and filled with fresh, delicious, good-for-you ingredients. When I posted a quick snapshot on Instagram last week of panzanella in the works, a follower asked for the recipe and while I will, of course, give you one here, the truth is that it changes every time! But that’s what makes it so easy and so perfect for summer when fresh veggies are all over the place.
While this version has tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion as the stars, I’ve also used combinations in the past that include fresh zucchini, grilled eggplant, and red peppers, among others. If you’re not familiar with panzanella, tomatoes are always a staple alongside toasty cubes of a rustic bread, such as Italian bread, ciabatta, or French bread, which soaks up the juices from the vegetables and the vinaigrette only to soften and become little, tasty bites that just explode summer when you bite into them. I like to toss my bread in a frying pan that has olive oil and garlic in it as it toasts and dries out, but you can also do it on a baking sheet in the oven or grill two halves of a loaf and cube it after it’s cooled. There’s a lot of flexibility here.
Adding mozzarella cheese, freshly torn basil, and other goodies, such as soppressata, could be seen as gilding the panzanella lily, but it also bulks up the salad and makes it feel a little bit more special, especially when serving it to guests. Though rustic and easy to prepare, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this meal. In fact, the leftovers may even turn your workday around when you have the remains for lunch, though I do recommend also packing a roll of breath mints in that case considering the abundance of garlic. Panzanella holds up and never disappoints. It’s a keeper and an easy, versatile summer meal.
Yields 4-6 servings
1 loaf of Italian or French bread
2 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
1 Tablespoon of butter
Salt & pepper
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
6-8 leaves of basil, torn or thinly sliced
12 ounces of fresh mozzarella
6 ounces of soppressata, cubed
1/2 of a large cucumber, halved and sliced into thin half-moons
1/4 cup of red onion, thinly sliced
First, cut the entire loaf of bread into 1-inch cubes. In a large frying pan with deep sides, melt the tablespoon of butter into approximately 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat and add the thinly sliced garlic. Allow the garlic to gently cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the bread and tossing it in the oil and butter mixture. Allow the bread to toast, flipping cubes over and tossing it every 2 minutes or so. If pan seems very dry, drizzle in a little bit more olive oil. Cook until all cubes are toasted and the exterior of each is crisp. For a whole loaf of Italian bread, this will take about 10-12 minutes.
While the bread is toasting, slice the vegetables and basil and cube the mozzarella cheese and soppressata; set aside. When the bread is finished cooking, add it along with the toasted slices of garlic into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool down for about 5 minutes. At this time, you can walk away and assemble the salad later on or finish making it. Add the sliced ingredients to the bread and lightly salt and pepper. Next, drizzle the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss together thoroughly to combine. I usually start by adding about two tablespoons of vinegar, tossing, and seeing where I’m at after. Remember, your vegetables will release moisture upon contact with the warm bread and then even more so with the acidity of the vinegar, so add a touch more vinegar if you’d like, but this will soften more and more as it sits.
When you eat the panzanella is entirely up to you and your preferred texture. I eat it all kinds of ways, but I prefer it about a half hour after everything is incorporated and macerated. The bread still has some crisp texture then and I like that bite, but it is also delicious once everything has really softened together and the bread is moist with all of the flavors. Depending on what you prefer, allow the salad to sit on the counter for a bit and then serve it or store in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight, before enjoying.