But then, like clouds parting, those savvy Italians redeem themselves with panzanella, the traditional Tuscan bread salad that combines their stale, tasteless bread with tomatoes. Suddenly, that bread has a purpose. There are a hundred and one ways to make a panzanella. Beyond the bread and tomato duet, some argue a proper panzanella needs bell peppers (I say not necessarily); others insist on cucumbers or celery. There's usually red onion, garlic and basil, too. Right now, the panzanella I'm making takes all its cues from my garden, which is putting out its triumphant last gasp of summer, kicking with tomatoes — the smaller cherry tomatoes are especially flavorful this year — and endless cucumbers. My basil, a classic panzanella herb, took a beating with Hurricane Irene, so this season's panzanella has been sporting mint and I really like it.This is one of those dishes that should depend entirely on the freshness of the ingredients, in particular the tomatoes. If you're not growing your own, then select tomatoes that smell like they've just been picked. Don't expect this dish to taste good if your tomatoes come from another hemisphere. Right now, in the northern hemisphere, we're in peak tomato-season so this is your shining panzanella moment. Seize it. A panzanella recipe is simply a guide; don't feel too attached to the formula. You can use other kinds of tomatoes, experiment with more or less bread, ditch the anchovies, or sub in basil for the mint. Use the best ingredients you have, that's my only rule.
1 pound cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
4-6 ounces day-old peasant bread, torn into bite-size pieces
1 cucumber, peeled, seeds scooped out, and diced
1/2 small red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons drained capers
small handful fresh mint (15-20 leaves) picked and sliced into thin ribbons, divided
For the dressing:
2 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/3 cup good-quality olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Slice the tomatoes in halves or quarters, going for manageable bite-size pieces. Place them in a colander set over a bowl and sprinkle the tomatoes with the salt. Set aside to drain for about 15 minutes (place a plate or bowl below to catch some of the juice).
In a large salad bowl, place the drained tomatoes (reserving 2 tablespoons of the juice), bread hunks, chopped cucumber, red onion, capers, and about half of the sliced mint.
In a mortar and pestle, combine the anchovies, garlic, half of the remaining mint and a small pinch of salt. Pound it aggressively to make a paste.
Add the olive oil and vinegar to the reserved 2 tablespoons of tomato juice. Drop in the anchovy paste and whisk until emulsified. Alternatively, shake it all up in a jar. Taste for seasoning; it may need more salt or a few cracks of pepper.
Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss. I like to use my hands to toss a panzanella to feel the juices start penetrating the bread. Allow the salad to rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving to allow the bread to soak in the juices.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)