One new favorite food that I found while in Italy uses stale bread as its base. The dish is called panzanella locally, but in English the name is bread salad. I know — the name “bread salad” isn’t inspiring. The appearance isn’t, either. However, the flavor explains why so many people keep basil plants growing in pots on their windowsills and doorsteps. Bread salad taught me that stale bread plus tomatoes and basil equals great food.
After being served bread salad a few times here, I asked one of my new Italian friends how to make it. This is what I was told:
Traditional panzanella, or bread salad, recipe
Start with stale bread (3-4 days old) that is dry and hard.
Break up the bread, then drop the pieces into water for brief saturation. Then, squeeze out the excess water as much as possible.
Mix onion, white vinegar, and a LOT of chopped basil into the bread in small amounts. Keeping adding and mixing until the flavor is good. Then, add olive oil.
Chop tomatoes, drain them, add salt, and continue to drain them until they are fairly dry.
If cucumbers are available, chop them to add to the salad, but do not use the gel/seed part.
Tips to make the generalized recipe work
The standard, soft, sandwich-style bread that is prevalent in the U.S. might not work well in bread salad. I think that the bread needs to be the kind made of just 4 ingredients – flour, water, yeast, and salt. Whole wheat works, but so does bread made from white flour. Joe and I have made the salad with both kinds, with good results.
We don’t have a basil plant on our windowsill in Italy, but our friend makes herb-infused olive oils. She gave us a bottle of basil-infused olive oil to use instead of fresh basil, and it is glorious!
Notice that there are no guidelines for amounts of anything. Either Joe and I have been very lucky, since this is good every time we make it, or bread salad is nearly foolproof.
Less obvious (maybe) benefits of bread salad
- It uses an ingredient — old, hard bread — that might otherwise be wasted. As a person who prefers to use up leftovers, even hard, stale, leftovers, rather than waste them, finding recipes for good food that use old bread well is a gift. Another way we have noticed that hard, stale bread is used is as a thickener for soups. Tomato soup, bean soup, vegetable soup — all contain bread that has been soaked, broken up, and dispersed throughout the broth.
- When tomatoes are in season and piling into the kitchen in large numbers, having an easy recipe (like this one) that uses them well is helpful. Ditto for cucumbers.
- If your basil is growing into an enormous plant, you can use that, too.
Let me know if you try making bread salad at home, and if you love it, too!
I hope your gardens are all growing well.