What follows is a personal and contemporary interpretation of the Tuscan panzanella salad. The bread should be from a firm Italian or French loaf trimmed of hard crust and may be a day old. In the classic version, the bread is soaked in water and crumbled, then mixed with the tomatoes. I find the texture of cubed bread more to my liking, and I think it looks much more attractive on the plate. Sometimes I even toast the bread lightly to help it retain texture as the tomatoes add their juices to the salad. It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: great tomatoes are essential. Remember to salt the vegetables before adding them to the bread mixture.
- 4 to 5 cups cubed bread (1-inch cubes, from 1 large loaf with crust removed)
- 1/3 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if toasting the bread
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 3 cups diced ripe tomatoes, cut ½-inch thick (about medium tomatoes)
- 2 cups diced cucumbers, peeled and seeded if necessary, cut ½-inch thick (1 English or 2 regular cucumbers)
- ½ cup finely sliced red onion
- About 1 cup pesto vinaigrette (see Variations, below)
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- Silvered fresh basil, for garnish (optional)
- 2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic (about 4 cloves)
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnuts, toasted
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly grounded black pepper
- Up to 1 cup mild and fruity olive oil, or half extra virgin oil and half pure oil, or all pure oil
If you like, toss the bread cubes with a bit of olive oil and toast in a 400-degree F oven for about 15 minutes. This is not essential, but it is a nice touch.
Toss the bread cubes (toasted or not) in a salad bowl with 1/3 cup oil and the vinegar and let them absorb this preliminary dressing for about 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, including salt and pepper to taste, and quickly toss together. Garnish with silvered basil if you want a dramatic presentation. Serve at room temperature.
Combine all ingredients except the olive oil in the container of a good processor or blender. Pulse a few times to chop the ingredients into small fragments. Add about ½ cup oil and pulse or puree quickly. Gradually ad more oil, as much as you need to make a thick puree. Do not overblend or overprocess. You should be able to see tiny pieces of basil leave rather than a homogenous green paste.
Transfer the pesto to a jar and film the top with a little olive oil to keep its bright green color. The pesto will keep for 1 month in the refrigerator and 2 to 4 months in the freezer.
For a Sicilian variation called peso ella trapenese, add 1 cup diced tomatoes to the basic mixture and use almonds instead of walnuts or pine nuts. Given the acid of the tomatoes, you may not need very much vinegar if you should decide to turn this into a salad dressing.
Thin ½ cup pesto with ½ cup olive oil and just 1 to 2 tablespoons mild wine vinegar. You do not want this to be too tart, as excessive acidity will obscure the flavor of the basil. The vinaigrette will hold well and stay green for up to 2 hours, either in the refrigerator or in a cool pantry. If you don’t care about the faded color, it will keep for a few days.
Pesto vinaigrette is good on tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, roasted peppers, cooked chicken, cooked seafood, rice, pasta and bread salads, bean salads, roasted or boiled potatoes, green beans, carrots and beets.
Add ½ cup pesto to ½ cup mayonnaise.
Nutritional information is based on 6 servings, and includes 1/8 teaspoon of added salt per serving.