Summer! A magical land of flip flops, sunshine, rock & roll, olive oil, zinfandel, barbecues, sunflowers, golden sunsets, the laughter of children, hummingbirds, wild salmon from Alaska, zucchini blossoms, sand stuck to your feet, pink wine, watermelon, baseball, baby deer in the park, cold beer, and, most of all, tomatoes.
Summer makes me think of Tuscany. Once, while strolling through Florence with my sister Andrea on a blazing hot summer day, I was wishing I had some sunglasses. The very moment I had the thought, I glanced at a trashcan we happened to be passing, and there sitting on top of a pile of refuse was a pair of almost-new, round John Lennon-y sunglasses. And, they were rose-colored glasses! Tuscany is sort of magical that way.
Summer makes me think of Tuscany. Tuscany in summer makes me think of tomatoes. Tuscany and tomatoes makes me think of panzanella.
One thing I love about Tuscan cooking is the resourcefulness and frugality of it. Nothing is wasted. What to do with that day old loaf of bread that’s not fit for the table anymore? Tear it up and throw it in a salad!
I like to think of panzanella as a sort of deconstructed bruschetta. Or perhaps a bruschetta that has exploded apart. You have all the same components — ripe tomato, basil, bread, cheese, olive oil — except torn and broken and tossed apart with some cucumber and vinegar for good measure. Like many of the best Tuscan dishes, it’s also one that lends itself to improvisation and inspiration. Throw in some white beans and tuna, for example, or a little crisped up pancetta. Usually you’ll use a crusty white bread, but I’ve made it with a multigrain loaf which was equally good. If you have leftovers, toss it in a chicken broth and make soup. It’s what the Tuscans would do.
In fact, oftentimes when I’m feeling alone and directionless in the kitchen, maybe a little afraid, I found comfort in those four letters: WWTD? What would Tuscans do?
This is a perfect dish for a late summer lunch, perhaps with a glass of that pink wine I mentioned above. Or serve it as a side dish with some grilled chicken or pork. Hurry, autumn is on the horizon. Enjoy!
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2 thick slices stale ciabatta or french rustic bread, torn roughly apart
2 large ripe tomatoes, cut into rough chunks
1 Japanese or English cucumber, cut into rough chunks
1/2 small red or sweet white onion, slivered thinly lengthwise
4 large basil leaves, torn apart
1/4 cup shaved pecorino romano
extra virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Toss together your bread, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, basil and cheese. Drizzle liberally with olive oil (you want to soak the bread, so I would say probably 1/4 to 1/3 cup), then with wine vinegar (about 2 tbsp). Season to taste with salt and pepper, toss again and serve.
There now, wasn’t that easy?