Panzanella Salad – for the Heat!

With the topic of betrayal before us, I leaned into Italy for a huge aroma of fresh inspiration. Why Italy?  I love their resourcefulness; they use what is available, fast, and fresh, an especially appealing style for summer.  Searching for recipes with these characteristics, I started thinking about the light and delicious flavors of the “Caprese Salad” from Campania.  A little tired of the predictable, I remembered a comparable recipe from Tuscany, but with the addition of bread.  It is called “panzanella,” meaning “bread salad.” I invite you to prepare it yourself and taste how bread, even day-old bread, can change everything.

When I lived in New York many years ago, I worked with an Italian cookbook author named Micol Negrin whom I credit for introducing me to panzanella. In Negrin’s book Rustico, I learned that Italians adhere to a meal philosophy expressed as “pane e companatico” (“bread and what goes with bread”). In essence, bread is the focal point of the table and everything else is seen as garnish. Each region of Italy showcases this philosophy somewhat differently, and in Tuscany, many recipes include bread as the main ingredient of an entire dish for the purpose of balancing and complementing the strong flavors which define its local cuisine. “Ribollita,” for example, contains Tuscan kale, from the heavy weight division of vegetables (also known as Cavolo nero or Lacinato kale).  When added to the soup, it doesn’t overpower it because bread is the main ingredient, absorbing the punch of the kale so that all of the flavors harmonize.  Similarly, the bread in panzanella provides the base for the salad, giving it substance and balance so that the harsh acidity from the onions and vinegary tomatoes don’t overwhelm the salad dish but complement it.

Pondering the words, “pane e companitico,” I began to wonder how far this expression dates back through Italian history? What if…the meaning of the Italians’ meal philosophy eroded over centuries, but the wording was preserved? Is it possible that their cultural expression of table importance can be traced back to the historical figure, Jesus Christ, who claimed to be God incarnate and whose body was broken for us?  We’ll probably never know for sure, but consider John 6:35 when Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall not thirst.” In early times, having or not having bread truly meant survival.  For Jesus to describe himself as their key to survival, promising life, even when anything (or nothing) was on their “plate,” was radical.   Let us then consider the place of bread at our table (or plate), whose gracious presence and focal point in our lives enables us to know a complemented life, not an overwhelmed or consumed one due to the harsh and bitter flavors rooted in betrayal.

Let us also consider panzanella as a recipe which captures the spirit of redemption.  Day old bread is saved from being cast off and thrown out.  It is then repurposed into a lovely and satisfying salad.  If you love reusing leftovers, this recipe with resonate with you like it does me!  I find great joy in knowing that food, or in this case, bread,  is not wasted, but redeemed for a new and noble purpose.  It’s illuminates our own condition, really.  Panzanella spares the less desirable bread, but what about the most desirable and perfect bread – the Bread of Life?  Indeed, Christ went through the ultimate betrayal in our place, overcoming what we could not overcome, redeeming what we could not redeem, giving us life for His death.  Yes, even in a kitchen, we can see, smell, taste, and chew the Gospel story because it’s written in the recipe books of our hearts.  So try panzanella and experience how it’s a salad for the heat of summer and the heat of betrayal.   ~Lauren

2 pounds ripe summer tomatoes, seeded, and diced (or 2 pounds cherry tomatoes, quartered)
1 large purple onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1/2 pound crustless day-old Tuscan bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 bunch basil leaves, torn

Toss all the ingredients except for the basil in a large bowl 30 minutes before serving at room temperature. Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Then fold in the basil and serve. (Adapted  from Micol Negrin, Rustico Regional Italian Country Cooking, 2002)

Serves 4


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