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LifestyleColumnistsMarge Perry

How to make classic Italian bread salad panzanella

Bread cubes soak up the flavors of slow-roasted

Bread cubes soak up the flavors of slow-roasted tomatoes, cucumber, creamy mozzarella and basil in this version of panzanella. Credit: Marge Perry

The Rolling Stones famously sang that you can’t always get what you want-- and anyone who has been in a grocery store lately knows how true that is. But in the kitchen, the fine art of transformation can get you what you need.

Panzanella, an Italian bread salad, probably came to life as a way of using up bits and pieces of whatever was left in the larder at the end of the week. Bread is never around long enough in my house to get stale, so in order to make this hearty and flavorful dish, I have to “stale” the bread before people start reaching for it. No problem: I tear or cut it in bite-sized pieces, and toast it in the oven until it is lightly crisped. Boom: transformed.

It’s too early to get really good tomatoes, and too expensive to buy the ripe imported ones. But we can transform those placid pre-season plum tomatoes with a sprinkling of sugar and long, slow roasting, which intensifies their flavor. We need the tomato juices to soak into our newly “staled” bread, so we’ll cook them just long enough to deepen their flavor--  but not so long that they dry out.

Transformation #3 is a no-brainer:  make your panzanella into a main dish with the addition of seared shrimp, leftover chicken, or white beans. Or leave it as a hearty and flavorful side dish-- one whose flavor gets even better the next day.

With just a couple of neat transformative tricks, I’m getting what I need.

Panzanella

1 12-ounce baguette, cut or torn in bite-sized pieces

1 pound plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise

1 tablespoon + 1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 English cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut across in 1/2-inc slices

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/2-inch chunks

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/2 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

2. Spread the bread slices on a sheet pan and toast until they are lightly crisp on the outside but soft inside, about 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

3. Combine the tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and sugar in a bowl; toss well. Arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, on the baking sheet. Bake until the tomatoes are wilted, but still hold their shape, 2 hours.  Cool and cut each half in half again.

4. Whisk the 1/3 cup of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the tomatoes, cucumber, mozzarella, onion and basil and toss well. Let the salad stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes to allow the bread to absorb the dressing and juices form the vegetables.

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