Faithful readers will remember that last November I went to Forza Win(ter) – a family style Italian dining experience courtesy of Forza Win. Well, I had the pleasure of another Forza Win dinner last week. It was a delight (as the Forza experiences always are!). The company was grand, the food was delicious, the drinks were tasty, the after dinner music was utterly enjoyable.
Perhaps more than anything, though, I was delighted that this feast featured panzanella. At my first Forza Win experience (CUTS, last summer), they served an INCREDIBLE, crazy addictive panzanella. The copious amounts I ingested undoubtedly played a large part in the painfully overfull feeling I had at the end of the night. But seriously, it was SO GOOD. So when it showed up on our table again last week, I was a very happy girl.
Given that I fell in love with the panzanella at CUTS last summer, it’s strange that up to this point I had never attempted it at home. Having it again last week prompted me to do just that. On Saturday evening, Louise and I had Danny and Marie-Laure (of the long walk fame) over for dinner, which seemed the perfect opportunity to try my hand at panzanella.
For those who may not be familiar… panzanella is a Tuscan-style bread salad. Recipes differ, but it always features tomatoes and chunks of crusty bread in a tangy, vinegary dressing. Forza’s version is ALL about the tomatoes, though many recipes include peppers (sometimes roasted, sometimes not). Since I was trying to emulate the crack-like addictive qualities of Forza’s recipe, I skipped the peppers and focused on finding fresh tomatoes. Fortunately, on Saturday mornings there is a small little farmers’ market in the square outside our flat. This week there were tomatoes in every color of the rainbow for sale – yippee! [This good news was reported by Louise, who passed through the square and bought some AMAZING fresh butter, which she brought home. That butter was basically the best thing that’s happened to me in months.]
I took myself down to the square and bought a load of tomatoes in various colors and sizes. Yay!
Aren’t they puuurty??
Besides the tomatoes, the essential ingredient is obviously the bread. Some recipes said to just use stale bread, but the best part of the Forza version is that the bread is damp with the dressing but still slightly crunchy. If you were to use just stale bread, I think it would get too soggy. So I took my cue from the recipes that suggested cutting the bread into chunks and toasting it up in the oven, crouton-style. I tossed the pieces with a little olive oil and some salt and pepper and toasted them in a 350F oven for about 15 minutes.
I didn’t strictly follow any one recipe, but I drew a lot from the Guardian’s Felicity Cloake and from Jamie Oliver’s version. I kind of played it all by ear, given that I was using all tomatoes and no peppers. The details that follow here, then, are vaguely what I did. Given the rustic nature of panzanella, I think it’s appropriate to just kind of feel your way through it.
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
Loads of fresh tomatoes
1 loaf of bread (ciabatta, sourdough, country loaf, whatever)
5(ish) tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon capers (optional)
4 anchovies, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
6 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh basil (I actually forgot this, but it’s definitely a good addition)
Felicity Cloake suggests soaking the onions in lightly salted cold water for an hour before using, in order to get more of a sweet flavor without the intense onion-ness. I did this, but I didn’t feel like it really got rid of the strong flavor. In fact, I thought the onion was too strong in the final product. The onions in Forza’s version are really thin, soft, and mellow. I don’t know if they cook them slightly before using or what, but that’s what I’d like to achieve in any of my future panzanella attempts.
Soaking the onions (and toasting the bread) was really the only time consuming step in the whole process. Otherwise it’s pretty quick and simple.
Chop the tomatoes into chunks (I left some of the smaller ones whole), and set in a colander over a bowl, so some of the juice can drain out.
Again, aren’t they so so pretty!?
Put the bread into a bowl and toss with the vinegar to moisten (I used white wine vinegar because that’s what I had, but I think red wine vinegar would work just as well – probably even better). Drain the onions and add them and the capers (drained of any excess liquid) to the bread. Give the tomatoes a toss and apply a little pressure to drain out any excess juice, then dump the tomatoes in the bread bowl.
Add the garlic and chopped anchovies to the tomato juice. Whisk in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste (if you’ve toasted the bread with salt/pepper already, then go light with it here). Pour the dressing over the bread and tomatoes and give it a good toss.
Leave it to sit for 15 minutes or so before serving, so that all the flavors can meld and the bread has time to soak up the liquid. Don’t leave it for too long, though, because you don’t want soggy, mushy bread. For the same reason, it won’t keep overnight. In other words, eat it all up the same day you make it.
I won’t pretend it was as good as Forza’s, but I was pretty pleased with this first attempt. Next time, I’ll go lighter on the onions and perhaps a little bolder with the dressing. I’m gonna be chasing that Forza panzanella dream until I nail it!
What about you? Have you ever made panzanella? Do you have a favorite recipe? Have you ever attempted to recreate a restaurant recipe at home?