Cook On: Peasant Panzanella

By Mary Ann Ebner

Panzanella, the rustic salad made with day-old bread, puts stale loaves to use and serves as a perfect summer side or stands in as a main course.

Though tomatoes and bread form the foundation of panzanella, olive oil pulls the Tuscan dish together.

Nancy MacNamara knows olive oil. As a vendor at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market, she markets extra virgin olive oil for the Kontoulis family, based in Larchmont. The family maintains a small grove in Messinia, Greece, where they cold-press olives within 48 hours of harvesting.

Farmers’ market shoppers stopping by the Kontoulis Family Olive Grove booth at Boscobel on Saturday mornings will find MacNamara offering samples and describing how it is produced.

Nancy MacNamara offers a tasting of extra virgin olive oil at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market. (Photo by M.A. Ebner)

“I went to Greece with the family last year and we harvested their olives” from the family’s Koroneiki trees, an ancient variety, MacNamara says. “We took the olives to the plant and stayed for every step of the process.”

“Olive oil is my essential staple,” she adds. “The Greeks drizzle olive oil on everything and they finish each dish with it.”

Forever immersed in food circles, MacNamara spent a chapter in her culinary life as a producer and purveyor of herbs, growing a crop of greens north of Newburgh at her Honey Locust Farm. She supplied a host of high-end restaurants and came to know the Kontoulis family as a fellow vendor at farmers’ markets.

Give day-old bread a second chance by tossing it with a few basic ingredients to make panzanella. (Photo by M.A. Ebner)

Salads like panzanella, made with simple ingredients picked fresh from the garden, please everyone and are “amazing with fine olive oil,” MacNamara says. “That’s what makes it so rich.”

With olive oil and artisanal bread on hand, this salad comes together quickly. Tomatoes are usually the focus, but toss in asparagus, peppers, cucumbers or greens while waiting for summer’s Sungolds or beefsteaks. If you finish off the sourdough or ciabatta before it has a chance to stale, toast pieces of a country loaf or a baguette to mimic yesterday’s loaf.

It takes only a few minutes to turn out crusty cubes to mingle with the vinaigrette. The bread soaks up the oil, vinegar and tomato juice and the result tastes more like a feast than a bread-inspired peasant meal. The classic Italian salad that relies on olive oil provides a second act for stale bread and gives tomato lovers something to celebrate when summer fruit ripens.

Panzanella

1 clove garlic, halved
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 to 5 medium tomatoes
1 shallot, slivered
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup basil leaves, torn
4 cups day-old bread pieces
salt and pepper

Vinaigrette

1 clove garlic, diced
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
juices from wedged tomatoes

Cut tomatoes into wedges and toss into a colander-lined bowl. Add kosher salt and let stand 20 minutes.

Rub bread with cut side of garlic clove. Cube bread and toast on baking sheet for 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

Place tomatoes, shallots, red onions, basil and bread cubes in large mixing bowl.

Dice garlic halves and whisk with extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and juices drained from salted tomatoes. Pour over salad ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let salad stand 30 minutes to allow bread to absorb flavors before serving.