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.
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)