Searching for an authentic version of panzanella - that Italian salad made up basically of stale bread and fresh tomatoes - proved more difficult than I expected. Many recipes online and in cookbooks included fennel, raw garlic, tuna, chickpeas, Parmigiano, boiled eggs, and other such out-of-place ingredients that didn't really fulfill my ideas of one of the exemplary dishes of cucina povera. I wanted something much simpler and totally stripped down, with only the most essential ingredients playing off each other. Armed with these ideas, I went down to my local bookstore and nosed through several books. I ended up finding the most promising recipes in Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian and Flavors of Tuscany (a highly covetable book, at least in my estimation).
Saveur has you toast a cubed baguette in olive oil and garlic, which you then toss with sliced tomatoes, red wine vinegar and basil. Nancy Harmon Jenkins has you toss water-moistened stale bread with tomatoes and other vegetables, basil and red wine vinegar. I liked Saveur's plain and simple ingredient list better, but something about the moistened bread in the second recipe seemed more peasant-like to me. I decided to fuse the two ideas and make my own panzanella. I think it comes close to nirvana, especially if you are like me and think that tomatoes and bread might be the only two foods worth living for on this planet.
I started out with an assortment of gorgeous tomatoes. Miniature plum tomatoes called Juliet, which literally taste as sweet as candy, stripey Green Zebras, a delicate yellow tomato, and then one red and green striped one that looks like a Brandywine, but I'm not sure.
I cubed a hardened baguette (although now that I have some stale ciabatta lying around, that could certainly be used, too) and soaked the cubes in a small glass of lukewarm water for a second or two. I squeezed out the excess water and put the softened bread in a bowl. To that I added all the sliced tomatoes, a handful of sliced basil, and a good amount of salt. To dress the salad, I added some delicately flavored olive oil and a few drops of sherry vinegar (I think balsamic vinegar is too sweet and strong for the bread). Eaten straight away, the panzanella was refreshing and delicious.
I love using up stale bread, and while it's still warm out, this salad is a good way to do that. Soon enough, when the good tomatoes are gone and it's cool outside, it'll be time for the warmer dishes using up old bread, like pappa al pomodoro and many of Judy Rodgers' soups.