Ripe summer tomatoes require nothing more than to be sliced, drizzled with fruity extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and fresh pepper. But when you need a side dish that’s a little more substantial, consider panzanella, the rustic Italian tomato-bread salad in which the fruit is cut into chunks, tossed with bread pieces and dressed with olive oil and vinegar.
When done well, the tomatoes give up some of their sweet juice, which mixes with the tangy dressing and moistens the dry bread until it’s soft and just a little chewy. But the line between lightly moistened and unpleasantly soggy is very thin.
To get the bread just right, we toasted the pieces in a 400-degree oven, where they turned nutty-tasting and lost a fair bit of moisture, enhancing their ability to soak up any added liquid. To coax more juice from the sweet tomatoes, we cut them up, tossed them with some salt, and set them in a colander to drain. Fifteen minutes later, they’d shed a good bit of juice into which we whisked oil and vinegar.
Our bread, tomatoes, and dressing perfected, we just had to figure out how to bring them all together into one cohesive dish. The key was letting the bread soak in the dressing for a few minutes. This gave the bread a chance to become lightly saturated with the flavorful dressing before adding the rest of the components: the tomatoes, thinly sliced cucumber and shallot, and fresh basil.
Italian Bread Salad (Panzanella)
6 cups rustic Italian or French bread, cut or torn into 1-inch pieces (1/2 to 1 pound)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and sliced thin
1 shallot, sliced thin
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 F. Toss bread pieces with 2 tablespoons oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt; arrange bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Toast bread pieces until just starting to turn light golden, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
2. Gently toss tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt in large bowl. Transfer to colander and set over bowl; set aside to drain for 15 minutes, tossing occasionally.
3. Whisk remaining 6 tablespoons oil, the vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon pepper into reserved tomato juices. Add bread pieces, toss to coat and let stand for 10 minutes, tossing occasionally.
4. Add tomatoes, cucumber, shallot and basil to bowl with bread pieces and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste; serve immediately.
Recipe note: The success of this recipe depends on ripe, in-season tomatoes and a fruity, high-quality olive oil.
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