A few months ago, I interviewed entertaining expert Erika Lenkert for a story on throwing a successful dinner party. Among her many fantastic and unique tips (check out the fall issue of The Nest, on newsstands October 10, to find out what they are) Lenkert told me that a key to entertaining with ease is to “leverage the salad course. In some ways there’s nothing better than a really exceptional salad,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to shine with very little effort.” I wholeheartedly agree! Johnny and I eat salad almost every night and I love throwing whatever I have on hand into the mix. I’ve had panzanella, or bread salad, on my mind for a long time but, for one reason or another, I never got around to making one. Then, when we went to Connecticut for Labor Day weekend, I walked into the house and saw a big basket of native tomatoes on the counter, courtesy of one of my father’s friends whose garden had runneth over. The time had come to prepare panzanella.
I googled panzanella salad to see what ingredients typically go into one. I knew bread and tomatoes, but because panzanella is known as a “leftover salad” the other ingredients vary. Some recipes called for cucumbers, bell peppers, pancetta or arugula. Johnny doesn’t love cukes and I’m not a big fan of raw peppers so I decided to keep my salad simple. I found this recipe on Change.org and made some modifications. I decided we’d have the salad when Heather and Jeff came for dinner on Sunday, so on Friday I bought a loaf of Chabaso Bakery’s olive oil ciabatta (Chabaso is a New Haven bakery that makes some of the best bread I’ve ever had) and set it aside to get nice and stale.
When it came time to make the salad, I cut up the loaf into cubes, then browned three cloves of garlic in olive oil. I removed the garlic from the pan, and then sauteed the bread until it turned nice and golden, almost like a crouton. Into the bowl the bread went along with the garlic, a generous handful of basil leaves and the aforementioned tomatoes. I then dressed the salad with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a couple of splashes of red wine vinegar, and seasoned it with salt and pepper.
Oh wow. This salad was freakin’ fantastic! The flavors melded so well together. It barely made it to the table because we couldn’t stop eating it straight from the bowl! Wait until a few minutes before you serve the salad to dress it, as the bread soaks up the liquid quickly. If you have an abundance of tomato and basil, this is a simple and delicious way to use it!