Panzanella salad was one of the first things I made when I started living and cooking on my own, and I’ve made it about a gazillion times since. The Booze Hound requests it often not just because it’s awesome, but because it reminds him of the early days of dating when he learned that the world of food offered more than frozen burritos, Chef Boyardee, and Cheez Whiz. Oh, and Natty Light. From a keg.
But while I can’t say for sure the stray Dorito doesn’t cross his lips once in a while, I can definitely say that after years of ‘Extreme Food Makeover: Booze Hound Edition,’ the man knows and eats good food. And there’s no one I’d rather sit next to while eating my Ultimate Panzanella Salad. Awh.
So let’s get down to the business of discussing what’s in this fantastic meal. First, I love that it’s a salad with bread in it. And not just regular old pieces of bread… cubes of dense, rustic bread browned in olive oil till crispy on the outside, but still chewy on the inside. Love. Wouldn’t every day be just a little brighter if it had some crispy-chewy homemade croutons in it?
Although panzanella is an Italian dish, I like how Ina Garten makes hers with a lot of Greek components, like cukes and olives, in addition to the classic tomato-onion-bell pepper combo. She also uses feta, which definitely gives it a Greek flavor, but my personal favorite cheese to use in panzanella is ricotta salata. Its texture is similar to that of feta, but its flavor is less sharp so it doesn’t dominate the dish or compete with the dressing. Of course, you could totally use feta, and I occasionally do.
Most recipes I have seen use some sort of vinegar in the dressing, but I think vinegar makes it a little too pungent, so I use lemon juice. To me, lemon juice totally makes this vinaigrette, and it adds its own flavor profile to the whole dish without being as in-your-face as vinegar. It pairs so well with the oregano, and I really find that the whole dish is seasoned perfectly with just the oregano, salt and pepper. You could add basil, but then I’d leave out the olives to get rid of one of the bigger competing flavors.
And so you have it, my Ultimate Panzanella. Late summer is totally the best time to make this because all the veggies are in season AND it’s a no-cook dinner (except for the croutons, but browning bread cubes isn’t really work to me… it’s heaven). And although it’s meatless, it’s pretty hearty with all those olives and cheese cubes. Plus, it’s Booze Hound approved, and he likes a hearty meal.
Make this for the Cheez Whiz-lovers in your life, and I promise they’ll see the light! Cheers!
- ¾ c good olive oil
- 6 cups (1-inch) diced rustic bread
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 cucumber, unpeeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced ½" thick
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and large-diced
- 1 yellow pepper, seeded and large-diced
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
- ½ small onion (red or sweet), thinly sliced in half rounds
- ¼ c freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 2 t minced garlic (2 cloves)
- 1 t dried oregano, crushed
- ½ t Dijon mustard
- 8 oz ricotta insalata or feta cheese, ¾" diced
- ½ c kalamata olives, pitted
- Heat ¼ c olive oil in a large saute pan until hot. Add the bread and sprinkle with salt and pepper; cook over low to medium heat, stirring frequently, for 5-10 minutes until nicely browned. Set aside.
- Place cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and onion in a large bowl and toss together.
- For the vinaigrette, combine the lemon juice, garlic, oregano, mustard, 1 t salt and ½ t pepper in a small bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly add the remaining ½ c olive oil.
- Add the cheese, olives and bread to the vegetables in the bowl, add the vinaigrette, and toss to coat. Set aside for 30 minutes for the flavors to develop. Season to taste and serve at room temperature.