Panzanella is a Tuscan recipe designed to use up leftover, stale bread. There is an invention story, but the idea of mixing old bread with something wet and eating it cannot have one point of origin. Anyway, the story goes that Agnolo di Cosimo (aka ‘Bronzino’)– court painter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was fond of onions with vinegar and oil on toast. In one of his many poems, he goes on about how good they are, and then later chats on about salads. Some historians have taken this to be the origin of panzanella. The tomatoes that are now ubiquitously associated with panzanella arrived in Italy in 1548 – just in time for Bronzino to add them to his salad. However, it appears he never did this as the first record of tomatoes in a panzanella occurs in 1928 with the publication of an issue of the Italian touring magazine Le vie d’Italia.
These days, there are countless recipes for panzanella. The basics are now stale bread, tomatoes, onions and oil. Common additions are various vinegars, mustard (in the spirit of a misplaced French dressing), anchovies, shallots and olives. In recognition of the Tuscan origins of panzanella, we are stripping the dish back to basics and using the red onions common to the area. We salt the tomatoes to extract their juice as a sensible and economical proxy for the vinegar.
The etymology of panzanella is the Italian ‘pane‘ for bread and ‘zanella‘ for the deep dish that the salad is often served in.
- For the tomatoes:
- 1kg ripe small tomatoes, halved
- 2 tsp sea salt
- For the bread:
- 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 300g or so of day-old ciabatta or sourdough bread, cut into large chunks
- For the rest:
- 2 red onions, finely chopped
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Handful of basil leaves, torn
Mix the tsp of salt with the tomatoes and put them in a colander set over a bowl to collect the juice. Drain for 15 mins, tossing occasionally to encourage the juice out.
Heat the 4 tbsp oil in a large frying pan (or a wok) and fry off the bread until nicely coloured.
Lightly salt the onions in a bowl and cover with water for 5 mins. Drain.
Remove the tomatoes from the bowl of juice. Whisk the olive oil into the juice and add the onions. Season well with black pepper (don't add salt, as there is enough in the dish by now).
Combine the tomatoes and bread and then pour over the onion 'salsa' and mix through.
Garnish with the basil and serve.