Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bread Salad

I know "Bread Salad" is about as unglamorous a title for a dish as you can think of, but in our house, it always elicits excitement. But for those of you who want a fancier name, let me tell you about a dish that the Italians call "panzanella."

Thanks to my family's extreme fondness for vegetables year-round, as well as to the ingenious concept of wholesale food clubs, our house is rarely without the bread salad quartet of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and bread.

This recipe, like so many of our favorites, is inspired by Ina Garten. As we've made the salad countless times in the past year or so (why we never decided to make it before, I have no idea), we have of course made a few modifications from Ina's original recipe.

Usually the process goes something like this:

"You know we have all the stuff to make bread salad, right?" I'll tell my mom nonchalantly. She'll nod, and we'll agree to make it for tomorrow's dinner. The better for me to mentally prepare myself for the deliciousness.
At around 7:30, I'll come downstairs and wash the vegetables. Two large tomatoes (we usually have beefsteak, but five or six Roma tomatoes would be fine, as well.), one whole English cucumber, and two bell peppers are about right. Then I'll dice up five or six slices of bread (my favorite is whole wheat).
Usually right about now my mom, inevitably knitting at the kitchen table, will chime in with "Can I do anything to help?" Now, while I strangely enjoy chopping vegetables and those kinds of menial prepwork tasks, I really can't stand to wash and dry greens and make salad dressing. So I let my mom do my leftover tasks, and she is always happy to do so (plus I am convinced that she makes amazing salad dressing, which is just as important a component in this dish as the bread and vegetables).

The whole meal comes together very quickly. I always toast the bread in the oven (rather than in a skillet on the stove), and I sprinkle it with salt and pepper to make sure it's seasoned well. While the bread toasts, the vegetables are sitting happily in a huge (and I mean huge - way too big for just my mom and me) salad bowl, soaking up all that delicious vinaigrette. Once the bread is toasted, it goes straight into the bowl, and the warm cubes of bread readily absorb the dressing, too.

And, finally, a shout-out to the behind-the-scenes star of this dish, the capers, which at first glance can seem insignificant. After all, how can such a tiny berry make that great a difference in this sea of vegetables and bread? But they add a welcome brininess to the salad and a little pop of acidity that wonderfully complements the sweetness of the tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. I say it almost every time we make this salad, and I'll say it again: the capers make the bread salad.

And even though this dish is redolent of summer's bounty and bursting with bright colors, it is secretly dangerous. If you're not paying attention, you will quickly find yourself four bowls deep, wondering to yourself where all that bread salad went. I've found this out the hard way, because we used to place the bowl right on the table, where it would practically call out to you. The last time we made this, I made the wise decision to leave the bowl in the kitchen, away from view. Somehow, we ended up with leftovers, but, of course, those were quickly devoured, too.
Bread Salad
Adapted from Ina Garten

If you like, you can also add half of a diced red onion (or sweet onion) to this salad. The onion adds a nice crunch and pungency. I like to soak the red onion in some cold water for about 10 minutes, which can mitigate that "Whoa, raw onion!" heat. But if you're not into raw onion, the salad will be no less delicious without it.

Yield: 4 servings

2 large beefsteak tomatoes (or 5 to 6 Roma tomatoes)
1 large English cucumber
2 bell peppers (red, orange, or yellow but not green)
5 or 6 slices of hearty bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1 garlic clove, minced (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder)
2 tablespoons choppped fresh herbs (preferably basil but a mixture of leafy green herbs like parsley, mint, or chives with the basil also works)
3 heaping tablespoons capers
Enough lettuce greans for four (about two heads of romaine or 4 cups of greens)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with foil.

Cut the tomatoes, cucumber, and bell peppers into about 1/2-inch pieces. Place in a large salad bowl.

Place the bread on the baking sheet and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toast the bread until golden brown and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

While the bread is toasting, make the dressing. Combine the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, garlic and herbs in a jar or container. Seal the jar or container and shake vigorously to mix the dressing. Pour the dressing over the vegetables to coat (you may have extra; save some for salad later). Add the capers and toss the vegetables to distribute the dressing evenly throughout. Add the toasted bread to the salad and toss again to distribute the bread, making sure that the bread is coated with dressing.

To serve, place a handful of greens in a bowl and top with as much bread salad as you like.


  1. Yum! I've heard of bread salad but have never had it before. It looks delicious!!!

  2. i was thinking about making this the other day-and Andrew LOVES capers-will give it a try-think emmanuel would eat this?

  3. Is Emmanuel the exchange student? I don't see why not, not when it's something this good. For my mom and me, this is always enough for dinner, but if we're talking about feeding MEN (or boys), as you do, I'd pair it with some sort of grilled meat (or even fish).

  4. Happy to discover your blog! I'm always bugging Mary for details of your latest cooking adventures, so now I can read about it. :)

  5. must try this - i love bread and all the veggies mmm- and i'll heed your warning to leave a goodly portion off the table.