Eugene Weekly : Food : 9.25.08

Panzanella Variations
Joy in a bowl of tomato-soaked bread
by Jennifer Burns Levin

Overheard in the Willamette Valley: Summer’s over. Bring on the tomatoes. 

What do we do with this sudden tomato wealth? I’m here to help, I hope, as a new monthly food columnist who knows the joys and challenges of being a foodie in Eugene. I write about gastronomic adventures in the Willamette Valley in my food blog, Culinaria Eugenius (, when I have time away from my day job writing my dissertation on modern literature. I’m a certified Master Food Preserver with Lane County Extension. And I’m thrilled I can share my interest in local food and cuisine with you!

So on to business — the business of all those tomatoes. 

To me, this means one sure thing: panzanella, a homely salad that was once Italian peasant food and is now a satisfying light meal or side dish with grilled meat. Panzanella, now grown slightly more sophisticated with thinly sliced sweet onion and herbs, can be personalized to taste in hundreds of ways. But the basic ingredients, a hunk of bread sliced into cubes and pieces of juicy tomato that moisten the bread with the help of olive oil and good wine vinegar, always serve as a foundation. 

The base recipe below, tomato basil panzanella with Walla Walla onions and black pepper, is great, but one tires even of basil at the end of the summer. Panzanella variations make an old friend new again. My favorite panzanella variation this season is fennel olive panzanella with tarragon and parsley, followed closely by cucumber panzanella with homemade chive blossom vinaigrette. Pondered, but rejected for fear of ostracism from my friends and family, was tiny hamburger meatball panzanella with dill pickles and sesame seeds. Your shame’s the limit.

Italian cookbook diva Marcella Hazan, who would never try to turn a burger into panzanella, flavors hers with a couple of anchovies, a tablespoon of capers, a bit of chopped garlic and yellow peppers. I used her recipe most recently for a taste test of the second most important part of panzanella: the bread. 

There are two philosophies about panzanella bread: One school calls for the bread, its crusts removed, to dissolve and create couscous-like crumbs saturated with tomato dressing. The second option, and my preference, is to leave the crusts on the bread and hope they remain cubes. 

Living in Eugene, we are fortunate to have several artisan bakeries; sadly, they tend to undercook their bread to make soft, chewy loaves. I conducted a wet bread experiment. The Eugene City Bakery ciabatta, with an open crumb and light texture, fell apart in the vinaigrette. The Marché Provisions ciabatta, with its slightly denser texture and darker crust, made cubes that stayed intact and became custardy inside. The Metropol ciabatta fell between the two; no custard, but intact cubes. Your choice: custardy or couscous.

As for the tomatoes, I like to use acidic ones from my garden, not the mild heirlooms but the hearty Siletz slicer, which ripened late in this year’s strange season. Cherry tomatoes and Romas won’t yield enough juice. Besides, you’ll need those for drying and canning, right?

Tomato Basil Panzanella with Walla Walla Onions and Black Pepper 

Serves: 4 for a light summer supper

2-3 cups cubed, day-old ciabatta bread

3 large, juicy, acidic slicing tomatoes, chopped coarsely

1/4 cup salted water or 1/2 cup fresh tomato juice from additional tomatoes

1/2 very thinly sliced medium-sized Walla Walla onion

1 clove garlic, chopped finely

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 

1 T. good red wine vinegar

salt and freshly ground pepper

handful of basil

Cube the bread into 1-inch square cubes and toast the cubes. In a small bowl, sprinkle the water or tomato juice on top of the cubes, mix well, and let sit for about 30 minutes. 

In a large bowl, add chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. When the bread cubes are ready, add basil and cubes to the large bowl, and toss with the tomato mixture. Serve with a bit more olive oil drizzled on top and a few grindings of pepper. Salad improves as it sits.

Variations: Swap out basil for another herb or two. Add 1-2 cups of vegetables of your choosing. Augment with bacon, cubes of ham, rich Oregon albacore tuna, capers, olives, or anything your imagination allows you to couple with tomato and bread. Use some restraint, though — focus on two flavors that complement each other. Buon appetito!