Breakfast is universally acknowledged as one of the main meals of the day: milk, coffee, fruit juices, cookies, brioches, and maybe yoghurt, homemade jam and, why not, some cold pizza.
In the past, when my grandma was a child, it was totally different. They used to have panzanella, the Tuscan bread salad, for breakfast. I love panzanella, as it is refreshing, light, a perfect summer dish. But I’d rather have it for lunch or dinner, not for breakfast.
Panzanella was a summer breakfast made with leftover bread.
During the winter, they used to have polenta to start the day. It used to be adult people’s breakfast, as grandma used to have milk instead – since they had a cow and a goat on the farm. Men who went to work in the fields at dawn made the panzanella in a lunch box and brought it with them in a basket. Then, when breakfast time came, they used to eat the panzanella, drinking some homemade red wine.
Panzanella is made in layers.
The base ingredient is unsalted Tuscan bread that has gone stale by a few days, which is then soaked in water, wrung out and combined with tomato, cucumber, onion, oil, salt, red wine vinegar and basil. As often happens, however, every cook ends up creating a version wholly theirs, by adding or leaving out ingredients according to individual preference.
Known since Boccaccio’s time as washed bread, this ancient recipe was later immortalized by Renaissance painter and poet Bronzino (1503-1572), who wrote of a green panzanella made with onion, cucumber, purslane and arugula. Tomatoes were not included, as they had just been introduced to Europe from the Americas and were not yet commonplace.
My recipe for panzanella
In my family, we make the classic panzanella, without exception. But then friends arrive, each wanting a different version. Some want a panzanella without onion. Others prefer it without cucumber. Then there are those who, like Tommaso, love it with tuna and capers. Panzanella is one of those dishes that invariably bend to the mood of the day and what’s on hand in the garden or pantry.
The best bread to make panzanella is Tuscan bread. On the blog, you can find a recipe to make your own Tuscan bread loaf with sourdough. If you don’t feel like baking it, a good crusty country bread would do.
Remember that the traditional, classic texture for panzanella is the one you’ll get following this recipe: the bread is soft, light, spongy, and it soaks up all the flavours making it a perfect, refreshing summer salad.
Panzanella, Tuscan bread salad
- 300 grams (10 1/2 oz) stale Tuscan bread
- 2 ripe tomatoes, either Florentine Costoluti or Beefsteak variety
- 1 cucumber
- 1 small red onion
- A few leaves of fresh basil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fine sea salt
- Break up the bread and place the pieces in a large bowl. Cover with cold water. They used to make panzanella with leftover homemade baked bread: it had a very different flavour and texture, and it needed a long time to soak up. Nowadays, 5 minutes often would do. The bread will absorb the water like a sponge.
- Finely slice the onion. If the flavour of your onions is too strong, soak them in cold water for about 10 minutes to reduce their pungency.
- Roughly chop the tomato. Peel and finely slice the cucumber.
- Drain and wring out the bread to remove all excess liquid, then crumble it using your hands. There’s nothing worse than a too-watery panzanella, so just when you think you have wrung out the liquid sufficiently, go ahead and do it one more time.
- Transfer the crumbled bread to a large bowl such as a soup tureen. Drain the onions and add these to the bread along with the tomatoes and cucumber. Tear in the basil leaves.
- Season with sea salt, a few grinds of black pepper, plenty of extra virgin olive oil and a small amount of red wine vinegar. For a more delicate flavour, use apple cider vinegar.
- Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, then toss well and serve.
More recipes with stale bread
- Pappa al pomodoro. Cooking class after class, summer after summer, I came to my own version, which sits right in the middle in between Florence and Siena, just like me, just like the Val d’Elsa. My biggest success was when Grandma tasted it and affirmed that my pappa was her favourite one.
- Acquacotta. The first time I heard this folk tale, it immediately reminded me of the acquacotta, literally the cooked water, a typical soup of Maremma, a Tuscan area that was once very poor. It is another good example of peasant cooking along with many other recipes that have as main ingredients stale bread and some seasonal vegetables. It is a nomad dish that followed the people from the mountain Amiata who moved in winter to the plain of Maremma in search of work, bringing with them a few ingredients, among which there were always onions. The basic ingredients of acquacotta are water, bread and onions.
- Bread pudding cake. While you make it, you’ll already have an idea of what the result will be: the hot milk softens the dry bread and makes it the perfect start for a rustic and moist cake, which will be enriched with two tablespoons of cocoa powder, nuts, an egg and some sugar. From here on, add your imagination: think of fresh raspberries in summer or a handful of chocolate chips if you want to indulge yourself… delicious!