As tomato season got underway in August, I made my first panzanella of the summer. This classic Italian bread salad is perfect in the warm weather, when I don’t want to work too hard at making dinner.
In its most basic form, panzanella is a mixture of bread cubes, diced tomato, cucumber, oil, vinegar, and a handful of herbs. Originally, it was one of those thrifty peasant recipes formulated to stretch stale bread into another meal. Over generations and with the addition of luxurious ingredients like olives and cheese, panzanella has become a casually elegant dish that would be perfectly at home on any Hamptons table.
And it’s not necessarily a budget choice these days. In Sag Harbor, a decent panzanella will set you back at least 20 dollars by the time you buy a loaf of Blue Duck ciabatta (look for it at the IGA), some of that excellent marinated goat feta from Cavaniola’s, and a few heirloom tomatoes from the Tomato Lady on Main Street. But who’s complaining? It’s still one of the easiest late-summer meals you can put together with ingredients gathered entirely in town.
Even with these top-quality provisions, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with my first attempt. The tomatoes were juicy, the cucumbers crisp, and the cubes of bread full of character. But my panzanella was missing something. Call it the taste of summer. Last week I made my salad again, grilling slices of ciabatta before cutting them into cubes. The improvement was remarkable. Here was a bread salad that could take its place alongside other seasonal favorites—corn, ribs, shish kebab — that get their great taste from the grill.
Grilling the bread improves panzanella in several ways. Grilled bread takes the chill off of the other ingredients without warming them up. Lightly rubbing the just-grilled slices with a garlic clove gives the salad a mellow garlic flavor with none of the harshness that you’d get if you chopped some raw garlic and added it to the dressing. Even day-old bread can become mushy when it sits in a bowl with diced tomatoes, but grilling dries out the bread to the point where it keeps its shape even as we linger at the table, enjoying the September twilight.
Most crucially, grilling caramelizes the sugars on the bread’s surface (ask a chemistry student at Pierson for an explanation of the Maillard reaction), enhancing its flavor and texture. Grilled bread lends its complexity to panzanella, making the salad more delicious than any dish this easy deserves to be.
The basic grilled panzanella recipe can be varied any way you like. A few ideas:
*Replace the beans with grilled shrimp.
*Leave out the cucumber and beans and throw in some grilled eggplant cubes and diced fresh mozzarella instead.
*Replace the olives with crisp-cooked bacon, replace the beans with chopped grilled chicken breast, and the cucumber with torn butter lettuce leaves. Leave out the anchovies from the lemon dressing.
*Leave out the cucumbers and beans, add some grilled corn kernels, diced avocado and red bell peppers, and use lime juice and a chipotle pepper instead of lemon juice and anchovies in the dressing.
Grilled Panzanella with Tomatoes, White Beans, and Feta Cheese
Serves 4 to 6
Grilled bread, charred and slightly sweet, is even tastier when it’s been brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt before cooking.
One 1-pound loaf country bread (Blue Duck ciabatta is perfect and day-old is fine), cut into 1-inch-thick slices
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 flat anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2 large ripe tomatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes
One 14-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed
One cucumber, peeled, seeded, halved lengthwise, and cut into ½-inch pieces
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano
1 garlic clove, peeled
Ground black pepper
1. Preheat gas grill to high. Brush bread slices on both sides with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle with salt.
2. Whisk together remaining 6 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, and anchovy fillets. Set aside.
3. Combine tomatoes, beans, cucumber, olives, feta cheese, and oregano in a large bowl.
4. Grill bread, turning once, until both sides are golden with grill marks. Lightly rub each slice with the garlic clove. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into 1-inch cubes.
5. Add bread cubes to bowl. Drizzle with dressing, stir, and let stand, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.