May 24, 2010

Ingredients for a Summer’s Day

D.C. has been rainy and cool.  Last week was a long stretch of pumpkin-bread-and-soup kind of days.  I love that kind of day. In October.  In the middle of May, I want sunshine and warmth and blue skies. 

This past weekend, we enjoyed a welcome respite from the gloom of D.C. weather during a trip to Arkansas for my youngest sister's high school graduation.  It was a weekend of family and friends with sunshine and temperatures in the upper 80s, all set against the lush green backdrop of the Arkansas River Valley.  It's always a striking feeling when I realize how much I miss grass and trees and waking up to birds chirping outside my window.

But now we're back in DC, and it's as cloudy and dreary as ever.    It’s times like this that I need something to remind me that brighter days are just around the corner.

Panzanella has humble beginnings, but the result is worthy of comparison to a summer's day.  It is a Tuscan bread salad originally intended as a means to use up several-days-old bread.  There are any number of different versions of this dish, which always includes bread, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Traditionally, the bread is soaked for a few seconds in water before being tossed with the rest of the ingredients, but I prefer the bread slightly crunchy.  My favorite panzanella recipe was given to me by my good friend Eli, who got the recipe from a friend, who got it from a bed and breakfast in Minnesota.  Toasting the bread and the addition of fennel make this "leftover" dish a spectacular salad worth making even when there isn't a loaf of dry bread laying around.

Panzanella (from Eli, et al., with a few of my notes)
printable recipe

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups of bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (A few days old, if you have it.  Any rustic loaf will do, although saltless Tuscan bread is traditional.  If the bread is more than a few days old, it may be dry enough that toasting is unnecessary.)
IMG_1810Preheat oven to 350 F.  Toss bread cubes with olive oil and spread in an even layer on a sheet pan.  Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, until golden brown.  Set aside to cool.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup shredded fresh basil
1 small clove garlic, minced or pressed
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine above ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until well combined.

2 large tomatoes, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced, washed and drained (Or more, to taste.  I love fennel, so I usually add extra.)
Gently toss all remaining ingredients in the large bowl with the bread and dressing.  Chill for 30 minutes to an hour before serving.


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