Panzanella is probably the most widely known Italian salad in the world. Made from vegetables and stale bread, this typical peasant food encapsulates the authentic flavours of the countryside and the aroma it regales will vary according to the season in which it is prepared. In fact there are two essential rules for making an excellent dish of panzanella: the first is to add seasonal vegetables only and the second is to use an extra virgin olive oil of complex structure and great character. Here is the traditional recipe for an authentic Italian panzanella.
The origins of panzanella, a country-style salad served cold, run along parallel lines according to two different schools of thought, which have been passed down to us in the name of tradition, in the form of a truly unique recipe. Some believe that panzanella is a peasant dish, deriving from the need to use up any stale bread, which was soaked and added to vegetables from the garden.
Instead, others claim that it was first adopted by fishermen at sea, strange as it may seem, who fed on stale bread soaked in sea water, accompanied by the few vegetables available in the galley kitchen. So, the story of panzanella unravels between the hot, sun scorched land and the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean sea. No one really knows the true origins of panzanella but one thing is certain, it represents yet another Italian gem, born of a profound respect for excellent ingredients and the magnificent land they come from.
It is very quick and easy to make panzanella. This refreshing dish can be served as a main meal in the summer or as a starter on cold winter days.
Place the stale bread in a bowl, add the cold water and white wine vinegar and leave to soak until soft. In the meantime dice the ripe tomatoes and the cucumber. Slice the red onion very finely.
Put all the vegetables together in a dish and season with extra virgin olive oil, salt, freshly ground pepper and small freshly picked basil leaves. Squeeze the bread, add it to the vegetables, mix thoroughly and serve, topped with a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves to taste.
Like all traditional recipes, panzanella has also been revisited and personalized by some great chefs down through the years. If you prefer, you may replace the soaked bread with toasted bread cut into small cubes and aromatized with rosemary. Alternatively, if you like more fishy flavours, you can enrich your panzanella with small prawns or shrimps previously tossed in the pan with some extra virgin olive oil.