Only the Italians could turn stale bread into something this wonderful. This is one of the best examples of why I love Mediterranean cooking: there’s virtually no limit to the possible variations on this versatile salad. Consider adding such optional ingredients as capers, peppers, cucumbers, olives, or crunchy ribbons of romaine lettuce to your panzanella.

Serves 4

8 oz. very dry, unsalted Italian bread
Warm water for soaking bread (about a cup)
3-4 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and cut into cubes or wedges
3-4 fresh garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/3 to 1/2 c. fresh basil, coarsely chopped
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

To prepare:

Break the bread into pieces and put into a bowl. Cover the bread with the warm water and soak it for just a few minutes, until softened, then squeeze it dry with your hands and crumble into a serving bowl or onto a deep platter.

Arrange the tomatoes, onions, garlic, and basil over the top of the bread. In a separate small bowl, combine olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Whisk the dressing and pour it over the salad. Season the panzanella with additional salt and pepper if desired, and serve. What could be easier?

Note: For a perfect Tuscan Panzanella, the bread must be unsalted and very dry. This recipe can be savored within minutes of being dressed, unlike the American toasted crouton version which has to marinate for an hour.

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