Monday, August 20, 2012 10:44 am EST

Panzanella on a dish
Tuscan panzanella, with its red, white and green color, is not only a very patriotic dish, but it's healthy, quick, easy and flavorful. This is a very antique dish and has always been much enjoyed. It is a great way to use old bread and avoid cooking in hot weather at the same time. It is very simple to make too.

Many attribute the birth of true panzanella to the way that the farm workers soaked their dried bread (the bread was baked once a week) to eat with the summer vegetables that were available in their gardens. Another school of thought argues that the panzanella was born on board fishing boats where sailors prepared a fast meal by wetting hard bread with sea water and mixing it with some vegetables.

Even Boccaccio speaks about this dish, defining it as "pan lavato" (washed bread)

In the sixteenth century, Agnolo Bronzino, portrait painter at the Medici court, says:

Chi vuol trapassar sopra le stelle
He who wishes to fly above the stars

en'tinga il pane e mangia a tirapelle
dip his bread and eat to bursting

un'insalata di cipolla trita
a salad of chopped onion

colla porcellanetta e citriuoli
with purslane and cucumbers

vince ogni altro piacer di questa vita
wins every other pleasure of this life

considerate un po' s'aggiungessi bassilico
consider if I were to add some basil

e ruchetta.
and arugula.

Tomatoes are not mentioned because at that time they were not used as a food. He does, however, talk about the herb ‘procellana' (or ‘portulaca' or ‘sportellacchia'- purslane) which is not used any more, and ‘ruchetta' (rucola =arugula) which has today become a very common herb, but until a few years ago was very difficult to find in the markets.

In 1865 panzanella was served by the statesman Bettino Ricasoli to the king of Italy Vittorio II during his visit to Chianti for a hunting party. In that occasion, it was prepared for him just with the classic ingredients: green basil, white bread, red tomatoes, to represent the colors of the Italian flag.

So we can, with any doubt, say that Panzanella is a king's dish.

Here is how to make it:

• 8 slices of country-style white bread, 2 to3 days old (The ideal bread would, of course, be Tuscan bread, traditionally the darker pane scuro. But if you don't happen to live in Tuscany, any good quality, well-structured bread will do the trick. Just make sure it is the kind of bread that will stand up to being soaked, squeezed and shredded without turning into mush)
• 1 big cucumber
• 3 or 4 ripe tomatoes
• 1 red onion
• fresh basil leaves
• extra-virgin olive oil
• white wine vinegar
(red wine vinegar is usual for panzanella—remembering that Tuscany is the home
of Chianti wines—but personally I prefer to use white wine vinegar which doesn't 'stain' the salad and,
to my taste anyway, has a less assertive flavor)
• salt
• pepper

(The measurements are really totally up to your taste though. I've seen the dish made with mostly bread, or with mostly vegetables)

Take some slices or chunks of stale bread and dunk them in water until they begin to soften. This should not take long. Remove them and squeeze out the water, then shred the bread with your hands into a salad bowl. Throw in some chopped ripe tomatoes, sliced or chopped red onion and cucumber and a few basil leaves. Dress your salad with abundant olive oil, some wine vinegar, salt and pepper. You can serve panzanella immediately if you like, but it doesn't mind a wait. In fact, it develops flavor if let it rest for a while, say an hour or two. It can even be made well ahead, in which case you may want to hold off on the vinegar, which can become overpowering, until you are ready to serve. Seal the bowl with some plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for about an hour.