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Panzanella is a typical Tuscan salad that celebrates garden-fresh vegetables during their peak season and utilizes day-old bread so that nothing goes to waste! Both of these objectives form the cornerstone of Cucina Toscana.
My father-in-law has perfected this storied recipe and it has become a staple on our summer table. There's nothing better than walking into the kitchen and being struck by the smell of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and basil!
While the traditional recipe allows for several different sources of protein to fortify the salad, the base recipe stays the same. When protein is added, this salad can constitute the entire meal.
"Tuscan Bread", despite what you may find in your local Whole Foods, refers to a hard crust and airy crumb white bread usually formed into a round. The most important characteristic of Tuscan bread is that it contains ZERO salt. So, unless you make it yourself, you are not likely to find a salt-free bread outside of Central Italy. The lack of salt in the bread allows you to scoop up a flavorful sauce or top with a salty Tuscan prosciutto without interfering with the flavors. But the omission of salt is a historical tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, perhaps as a result of heavy salt taxes or salt wars that affected the region. Since Tuscans are known to be quite "duro" or hard-headed, the saltless bread tradition continues to today. Salt is a preservative, so this particular bread is eaten the same day its made. The next day, it is rock-hard, and ready to be sliced thin, dried out completely, and serve as the basis for your Panzanella. We usually figure about 100 grams of bread per person.
Step 2: The Tomatoes
We have our own tomato garden at home which allows us to enjoy fresh tomatoes from June through September. Slice the tomatoes into wedges and place them in a colander, and place the colander in a bowl. Generously salt the tomatoes which will cause them to drain themselves of their juices. This juice will become the dressing for your salad which is why you want to retain every drop of it in the bowl. One big tomato per person.
Step 3: The Cucumbers
Ever notice how cucumbers sometimes have an overwhelming bitter flavor? My father-in-law taught me his method, passed down by his Nonna Rosa, for removing the bitter flavor. Cut off the end of the cucumber, and use that end to draw out the bitter foam created when rubbing the end over the stalk in a circular motion. See video below. Once the white, bitter foam has developed, you can slice off the foamy end and repeat on the other side of the cucumber. This leaves you with a cucumber that smells and tastes like a garden! I like to peel strips off of the cucumber (for aesthetics only), and thinly slice the stalk. Add the sliced cucumber to the tomatoes, salt again, and let the cucumber juice drain into the tomato juice. Give your colander a good shake every once in a while and allow the vegetables to drain for about 2 hours. I like to prepare the tomatoes and cucumbers first thing in the morning so that the panzanella is ready for lunch time. The kitchen will smell like a dream! One cucumber for every two people.
Pour the tomato and cucumber juice over the dried bread in a large serving bowl. The dried bread will absorb the juices beautifully without becoming too soggy. Add the tomatoes and cucumbers and toss well. Add 1 big serving spoon of white wine vinegar and 2 of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Top it off with sliced red onion (we dress all of our salads with Tropea onions which are much sweeter and less aggressive than normal red onions), a handful of freshly torn basil, and a dash of peperoncino. Eat immediately.
We added 1 medium-boiled egg per person to this panzanella and called it a lunch!
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