I had to take a break from pretty much everything last week. My birthday was last Tuesday, which is great. I mean, I didn’t die last year! Whoo-hoo! However, three days later, my birthday is followed by my late mother’s birthday. “Late” being the operative word. I miss my mother more than ever, so last week was a tough one. Cooking is my therapy, though, so I decided to come back from my self-imposed hiatus with a salad…that’s made of bread. Because, I mean, why wouldn’t a bread salad make me feel better? Panzanella is most certainly going to change the way you think of salad entrees.
Yep, Panzanella proves it…
…Italians know what the hell they’re doing when it comes to food. They already have the market cornered on desserts (hello, Cannolis) and pasta, but now salads are in their wheelhouse. Panzanella was- originally- a salad made from water-soaked bread. It tasted about as appetizing as it sounds- well, to me, at least.
Having never been a fan of the water-logged version, I’ve, instead, always made my panzanella with two (or three) day-old bread that’s been toasted. My version of the classic salad is also a smidge different in that I toss mine in a balsamic vinaigrette instead of the traditional white wine vinegar.
Traditional, or not, my version is easy to make, inexpensive, and doesn’t leave you hungry. So, let’s get to it.
A one-pound loaf of Italian bread that’s been hanging around for a couple of days. Stale bread works best in this recipe because you want it to soak up the balsamic vinaigrette without falling to crumbs. If you want to make panzanella, but don’t have any bread laying around- just buy it fresh and toast it a little while longer (we’ll get to that in a sec).
To make this a meal-worthy salad, I’m roasting beefy portobello mushrooms. That is, after I give them a quick toss in the same balsamic vinaigrette, which we’ll end using to dress the rest of the salad. Cherry tomatoes- or quartered Roma tomatoes- are a classic ingredient in panzanella, too. I’m using a tri-colored variety in this version.
Rounding out our list of major ingredients are: a high-quality balsamic vinegar, red onion, fresh rosemary and Italian parsley, chèvre, and arugula, to lighten the mood. Of course we’ll need spices and oils to round everything out.
Prep your portobellos
Because have a greedy family- myself included- I like to “beef” up the panzanella with the beefiest, non-beef fungus out there- portobello mushrooms. I just love these little guys. Mushrooms will satisfy most meat-lover’s craving for protein and its texture mimics beef pretty well, too.
Don’t rinse the mushrooms under running water, because you want them to roast, not steam. Mushrooms are sponges, as a result, they’ll soak up water when they’re rinsed. Once they hit the oven, they’ll begin to weep that moisture out- leaving you with sad, limp ‘shrooms. Instead, grab a fistful of papers towels and dampen them with some water. Use these to wipe off the mushrooms.
Once the little fungi are clean, use a chef’s knife to slice- just a sliver- off of the mushroom’s stem. That exposed end of the stem is tough and woody. Discard them, then cut the larger mushrooms (anything bigger than a golfball) into quarters. Cut the smaller mushrooms (golfball-size) in half. Anything smaller than a silver dollar- leave whole.
Throw your mushrooms onto your sheet pan with one of the cut sides down so they touch that hot metal and caramelize while roasting. Set the pan aside while you prepare the vinaigrette.
Shake up the Balsamic Vinaigrette
I’m a vinaigrette whore. If it’s a bad one, I’m leaving you. A good dressing and you have me forever. My ratio has evolved the older I grow, too. Measure out 1/2 cup of a high-quality balsamic into a mason jar (or another jar that you can cap and shake). Use a garlic press to make quick work of a bunch of garlic cloves. Just press them right into the jar.
Chop up two stems (about 1 tablespoon) of fresh rosemary and add this to the jar, as well.
To flavor the balsamic vinaigrette, we’re going to add honey, dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Top all of this off with 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Screw the jar’s cap on tightly and shake like crazy to emulsify the dressing.
Once the balsamic vinaigrette looks creamy, pour a 1/4 cup of it over the mushrooms. Again, arrange the mushrooms with one cut side down so they caramelize completely. Roast the mushrooms at 450°F for 15-20 minutes, or until they are a deep brown color and have developed a crust. They’re going to shrink by half, which is the reason we’re using a full pound of mushrooms for the panzanella.
Toast the bread
Like I mentioned earlier, panzanella is supposed to be made from bread that’s been soaked in water and wrung out. But, I’m all, “Ew!” and, “What’s the point?” I want my Italian bread to soak up dressing, not water. But, that also means my bread needs to be stale enough to do so.
Once again, I, typically, use 2-3 day old bread to make panzanella. This one-pound loaf was on its third day of existence. Stale bread has developed structure, so it’s not going to fall apart as it soaks up the balsamic vinaigrette. Clearly, this is the recipe you want to make when you have some old bread wasting away.
On top of using stale bread, I also toast my bread cubes prior to tossing them in the dressing. I’ve found this makes them hold up even better in the panzanella. So much so that in the past, this salad has been eaten the following day for lunch. Shocker, I know!
Use a serrated bread knife to cut the bread into one inch cubes, think: bite-size.
Pour about a 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil onto a sheet pan and throw the bread cubes over it. Toss the cubes of bread in the oil to lightly coat them, then toast them in a 350°F oven for 10 minutes.
Pull them from the oven, toss them again, then toast once more for 10 more minutes. If you’re using fresh bread: toss them yet again and toast them for another 10 minutes- for a total of 30 minutes (this additional 10 minutes is only for freshly-baked bread).
Pull the pan out of the oven and let the bread cool for a bit.
Prep the rest of the salad
The rest of the salad is easy to prep…not like everything else was a huge chore, but you know what I’m saying.
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. If you’re using larger Roma tomatoes, cut them into eighths.
Quarter a large red onion, then thinly slice one of the quarters. Save the rest of the onion for another recipe.
Roughly chop a handful (about a 1/4 cup) of Italian parsley.
And, finally, crumble 4 ounces of chèvre (soft goat cheese).
Once all of the other components have been prepped, pour half of the vinaigrette into a large salad bowl. Add the toasted bread cubes to the bowl, followed by the mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, arugula, and parsley. Top all of this with the remaining dressing, then toss everything together until the veggies are coated and the bread cubes are flecked with the vinaigrette.
Top, then serve, the panzanella
After the panzanella has been assembled, transfer it to a serving platter, or to individual plates. Top the salad with the crumbled chèvre and it’s ready to be served.
My family pretty much inhaled theirs as soon as I passed them their plates, but it’s best when left to sit for a half-hour, or so.
Allowing to sit gives the bread a chance to soak up not only the dressing, but the tomato juice as well.
This is a great way to bring an end to the summer, my prior age, and- emotionally- the toughest time of the year for me. I’m looking forward to better times, hopefully, with many platters of this panzanella front and center. I hope you are, as well.
Be sure to pin this recipe so you can find it later. Oh! And share it with your world, if you’d be so kind! Thanks!
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Panzanella Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
- mason jar
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 stems fresh rosemary, chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound baby portobello mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp paper towel
- 1 pound stale Italian (or French) bread, cut into 1" cubes
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cups arugula
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved (or 4 Roma tomatoes cut in eighths)
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion (about 1/4 of a large red onion)
- 1/4 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 4 ounces chèvre, crumbled
Prepare the Balsamic Vinaigrette
- Add the crushed garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary, balsamic vinegar, mustard, honey, and first quantity of olive oil to a mason jar (or another vessel that has a tight-fitting cap). Screw the jar's cap on tightly and shake vigorously to emulsify the dressing. Set aside. *This dressing may be prepared a week in advance.
Roast the Mushrooms
- Preheat your oven to 450°F.
- Use a chef's knife to slice off the bottom of the mushroom's woody stem. Discard the sliced ends.Cut the larger mushrooms- anything bigger than a golfball- into quarters. Cut the smaller mushrooms- golfball-size- in half. Anything smaller than a silver dollar- leave whole.
- Pour a 1/4 cup of the balsamic vinaigrette over the mushrooms. Toss the mushrooms in the dressing to coat them completely, then arrange the mushrooms with one cut side touching the pan to ensure they caramelize completely.
- Roast the mushrooms for 15-20 minutes, or until they are a deep brown color and have developed a crust. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the mushrooms to cool while you prepare the rest of the salad.
Toast the Bread
- Decrease the oven's temperature to 300°F.
- Pour the remaining 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil onto a sheet pan. Toss the bread cubes into the oil to coat them lightly. Toast the bread in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven, toss the bread cubes again, then return the pan to the oven to toast for an additional 10 minutes. Pull the pan out of the oven and let the bread cool down while you assemble the salad.
Assemble the Panzanella Salad
- Pour half of the vinaigrette into the bottom of a large salad bowl. Add the toasted bread cubes to the bowl, followed by the roasted mushrooms, arugula, tomatoes, red onion, and the chopped parsley.
- Pour the remaining dressing over the contents of the bowl and toss the salad together until the vegetables are coated and the bread is flecked with vinaigrette.
- Transfer the salad to either a serving platter, or to individual plates. Top the salad with the crumbled chèvre and serve immediately, or allow the salad to rest for 30 minutes*.
- Panzanella tastes best the day it is prepared, but can be stored- in the refrigerator- for up to 24 hours.