So often in diverse cuisines that span the globe, it is the simple and humble dishes with a firm peasant heritage that stand the test of time and grow to become genuine classics. These dishes rarely share ingredients or technique, but they all have one consistently common factor - they are all borne of necessity rather than luxury. Some dud peasant dishes have obviously fallen by the wayside over time, because they taste of what they are - cheap frugal meals. But then there are the survivors; witness dhal, pappa al pomodoro, borscht, congee, polenta amongst countless others - and of course, there is panzanella.
This Tuscan salad of tomatoes, bread, basil and olive oil is peasant cuisine at its thriftiest - and at its tastiest. You see, the bread used in panzanella was not the wonderful and steamingly-fresh loaves that the village baker churned out on a daily basis. Rather, it was the bread found in the pantry 2 days later, unused, neglected, hard and unpalatable. With the use of ingenuity and a few spankingly fresh ingredients, this bin-fodder was miraculously transformed into a luscious edible delight.
What was once a specialty of the Tuscany region has now spread across Italy, and along its travels, has picked up an array of extra ingredients. Some cooks will now add anchovies, celery, capers, tuna, chopped hard-boiled eggs or onion. In the recipe below, I mark certain ingredients as optional, and that really is what they are - optional. As long as the original palette of bread, tomatoes, basil, salt, vinegar and oil is adhered to, the remaining ingredients can be added or subtracted at will.
When making panzanella, it is essential to keep one very important thing in mind - all of the ingredients need to be of the utmost quality, and this is especially important when it comes to the bread. You see, if supermarket bought, spongy and pale bread were used in this dish, it would end up as a soggy mess that would be but a pale imitation of panzanella. What you need to use is good quality loaves - French sourdough, or an Italian country loaf, such as ciabatta. In addition, the other ingredients need to be the best you can get your hands on - just like all simple and simply elegant dishes. Use the ripest, juiciest tomatoes, the freshest scented basil, and the best quality extra virgin olive oil you can afford. If this all sits ill with the peasant origins of the dish, just remember that great tomatoes, flavoursome olive oil and fresh herbs were not luxuries to Italian citizens of yore, they were simply dinner.
Like many humble dishes before it, panzanella has become somewhat of a trendy dish on modern Sydney menus. At our restaurant, we aren't immune to a little cultural barbarism, and as such a special of grilled West Australian sardine fillets topped with some juicy panzanella salad has been walking out of the kitchen over the last few days. This is but one suggestion. Try panzanella with a nice meaty fish steak, such as tuna or swordfish, or perhaps alongside a simply grilled chicken breast. If you added a sensationally fresh salad, and some homemade gnocchi, then even your vegetarian friends will succumb to peasant-led gustatory bliss. I won’t lie – this salad is no oil painting, in fact it looks like a shocking mess on the plate, but one mouthful will leave you in no doubt – this is about as good as simple regional cuisine gets.
Here is how simple it all is.
Place the bread into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle with a small amount of water. Not enough to make the bread soggy, but just enough to moisten it. Set aside for 10 minutes, then add the tomatoes, basil, olive oil, vinegar and seasonings. Toss well, and set aside for 20 minutes to let the flavours co-mingle and really get to know one another. Add any (or all) of the optional ingredients, and toss to combine.
Serve with a final drizzle of olive oil and a grind of fresh black pepper.