Waste Not is a collaboration with my friend, Carrie King. The premise is simple: Carrie, a food writer and editor, shares a recipe highlighting at least one particular way that we can curb food waste. I make it at home, take a bunch of pictures, and share it with everyone here.
When the season’s right, James bakes weekly loaves of sourdough. When it’s summertime and too hot to heat up our oven-sized apartment even one more degree, we get fresh loaves from local bakeries. Generally we gobble the bread while it’s still warm, but there are weeks when for one reason or another, a loaf gets forgotten in its cloth bag on the counter and left there to get lonely and sad. Last week, we had half of a baguette and the heel of a loaf of sour dough that needed saving. Carrie’s panzanella was the perfect rescue.
There’s a big difference between moldy bread and stale bread. And it’s usually unsightly and green.
Stale bread is kind of dry, kind of tough to chew, definitely not all that enticing for a sandwich, but otherwise totally edible. It seems like nearly every other culture in the world is better than us when it comes to using up instead of just throwing away. So, it stands to reason that there’s a whole slew of dishes from various cuisines designed with the sole intention of making delicious use of bread that’s been sitting around, drying out, for just a little too long. Panzanella is one of those dishes. Thank you, Tuscany!
There are lots of ways to make panzanella. The veggies and herbs vary, but the one necessity is dried out bread. It doesn’t even have to be fancy, artisanal bread. Sourdough or ciabattas are my favorite to use, but really, any rustic-style bread will do. Just as long as it’s nice and dry and not too flimsy. Pre-sliced breads can be used if that’s what you have on hand, but they are generally very airy and thinly sliced so they run the risk of becoming mushy once dressed. And mushy bread that completely dissolves in your mouth is texturally unpleasant, even if it’s topped with lots of fresh basil and summer’s most sun-kissed tomatoes.
The most classic panzanella is one rife with ripe tomatoes. It makes sense because the sweet, slightly acidic juices mix with the olive oil to create a dressing that moistens the bread just enough. The goal is for the otherwise dry bread to be dressed just enough that it regains some moisture and makes the bread toothsome in the salad. The bread acts like a sponge, soaking up all of the intermingled flavors and juices and bursting with flavor with each blissful bite. It’s a delicate balance to achieve. Not difficult, just important.
Another key here is that you’re using tomatoes at their peak ripeness. You want flavor and lots of juice—neither of which can be found in those out-of-season, slightly orange, hard pieces of fruit (or veggie depending on who you ask) that somehow pass for tomatoes. In fact, if you have any tomatoes that are soft and mushy in spots, verging on over-ripe and no longer suitable for nice slices, panzanella is the perfect use for them.
Tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, and in this case, smoky, charred peppers, and briny olives make for a pretty dreamy combo, with or without the bread. But, with the simple addition of an ingredient that might otherwise have been wasted, a light salad is suddenly transformed into a hearty meal. Kind of genius, really.
2 – 3 lbs heirloom tomatoes (or otherwise very ripe tomatoes)
fresh cracked black pepper
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
1/4 cup castelvetrano olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
2-3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
2-3 sprigs fresh basil
6 cups 2-3 day old bread, diced or torn into 1-inch cubes
Cut the tomatoes into large, roughly bite-size pieces. Transfer to a large bowl along with any juices from the cutting board. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and few grinds black pepper. Add the shallot, garlic, olives, and 1/3 cup olive oil and toss to combine. Set aside to marinate.
Char the bell peppers by placing them directly on the open flame of a gas stovetop or grill, carefully turning occasionally with long tongs, until all sides are charred and blackened in spots, about 8 minutes total. (If you don’t have a grill or gas stovetop, you can do the same thing by broiling the peppers on a sheet pan, turning occasionally and keeping a close eye as broilers vary). Once the peppers are charred, place them in a bowl covered with a a pot lid or kitchen towel and let sit for 10-12 minutes or so, so that they steam and cool slightly. (Letting them sit and steam also makes the skin easier to peel.) Once cool enough to handle, remove the stems. Peel the skin from the peppers, by scraping with the back of a knife, then halve the peppers and scrape the seeds.
Cut the peppers into large pieces, roughly 1-2 inches and transfer to the bowl with the marinating tomatoes. Stir in the vinegar.
Add the bread and toss gently to combine, ensuring that the bread is coated in the dressing. Let sit for at least 30 minutes so the bread has time to absorb some of the juices.
Tear the basil leaves into the salad, toss again. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil before serving.
If the bread you’d like to use is still a little spongy and moist, or slightly too fresh, you can also expedite the drying out process by spreading the torn pieces of bread on a sheet pan or two, and baking them in a 350ºF oven until dried, and slightly toasted.
If you don’t care for the hassle of roasting your own peppers, you could use any quality, store-bought roasted peppers. Or even, my personal favorite, strips of still-crunchy vinegar peppers, which I pick up at my local Italian deli, but that can be bought in most grocery stores. Or, just chop up some raw bell peppers.
If you can’t find meaty castelvetrano olives, you could use kalamata olives, or even sub in capers if you prefer or have those on hand.
For the curious:
Our serving bowl is from East Fork Pottery.
We keep our bread stored in a bento bag.