Ellen Cooks: Panzanella

Please welcome guest author Ellen Simpson of “Ellen Cooks.”
I first learned of Panzanella, an Italian bread salad, from my Uncle Bob. My mother’s garden was overrun with tomatoes, and we had been devouring tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches for weeks.  Bob, having arrived from L.A. in time for the thickest, most sweltering days of August, could only manage enthusiasm for one thing: panzanella. He had read about it in one of his favorite Italian cookbooks and was determined to give it a try. I was in my early 20s, living at home with my parents for the summer, and the idea of a salad built around soggy bread sounded revolting. Of course, Bob would correct me by saying, “its not soggy bread, my dear niece, it is bread that has already absorbed all the juices that we would otherwise be sopping up anyway.”  I took one bite and fell in love. And he’s right.  The bread in a panzanella shouldn’t be soggy at all. The bread should still hold its form, but be so laden with tomato juice and olive oil that the juices burst in your mouth when you take a bite. It’s a rustic dish that has no rules. Just add what you like. My family tosses the bread with grilled peppers, eggplant, onions, and squash. Olives, basil, and anchovies round it out. 

The genius of a panzanella is that it is the ultimate Clean Out the Fridge meal. Day old bread, veggies left hanging around the bottom drawers, the last few olives and capers in a jar. If planned right, you can have a cleared out fridge and a delicious dinner. Okay, in reality, that’s never happened for me, but a girl can dream…

Cut day old bread (ciabatta, baguette, miche) into 1 inch cubes. If you don’t have day old bread you can cheat by cutting the bread into the cubes and sticking them in the oven at a low temperature until the cubes of bread start to dry out.

Squeeze out the juice of  5 large tomatoes into a mixing bowl, and then add extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, to taste. Add a tablespoon of minced garlic to the juice mixture.

Slice, oil, and grill your vegetables.

Take a handful of the bread cubes and dunk them into the tomato juice concoction. Make sure all the cubes have a chance to soak up some of the juice, but remove them from the juice before they get soggy. Place them into a salad bowl. Repeat this step until either all the bread is gone, or all the juice is gone. Top the tomato-soaked bread with the grilled vegetables, black olives, capers, anchovies, and fresh basil. Done!

Ellen lives in Brooklyn with her husband John, who will eat anything. She works at Buttermilk Channel Restaurant and recently received an advanced certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.


As a kid, I had to do chores. If my siblings and I fought, we had to do extra chores. We often fought. I don’t know why my parents thought it would be a good idea to make fighting siblings do chores together, especially if one of the chores was gathering rotten tomatoes from the garden to feed to my brother’s pigs.

I don’t remember how it started, but my sweet little sister, Stacey, took aim and threw a tomato that hit my older brother, Rob, squarely in the face. There was a brief pause, all three of us were stunned, and then my sister took off running for the house, screaming.

This from my sister: “I remember Rob saying something that made me really mad. I’m not sure what it was, I just remember being really mad and hurling a rotten tomato at him. When it hit pay dirt, I remember fearing for my life. I distinctly remember that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t remember how it ended. I don’t think I got pummeled, so I think I must have run to the house — somehow beating Rob — and hid behind Mom.”

Our tomato patch this year would have been a good place for a tomato fight. Sadly, late blight wreaked havoc on our garden and the rotten tomatoes outnumbered the good ones. The survivors were prized indeed.

Most things taste better fresh from the garden, but some things are essential to have fresh. The tomatoes that you can get all year round in the grocery store, in my opinion, aren’t really tomatoes. Sure they look like them, but these impostors certainly don’t taste like them. Real tomatoes have to be picked locally and eaten in season. Period.

A sure way to ruin a good farm fresh tomato is to store it in the refrigerator. It changes both the flavor and texture. A refrigerated tomato is still good to use in a sauce, but I wouldn’t use it for anything that wasn’t cooked. No worries though, cooking tomatoes increases lycopene absorption.

Lycopene is the darling of the phytonutrient world and tomatoes are an excellent source of it. It’s found in vegetables with red pigment such as tomatoes, apricots, pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya and guava. Lycopene is purported to be protective against a number of cancers. It may also provide cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory benefits. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin A and a good source of fiber. So, eat up!

I had the good fortune to go south this weekend. I gladly lugged an extra bag on the train to carry my tomato haul. I treasured the tomatoes and fretted over just what to do with them. There weren’t enough to make all of my favorite dishes, so I had to be choosy. Just throwing them on top of a green salad wouldn’t do. I wanted to celebrate the pure tomatoness of the tomatoes.

There are three tomato dishes that I would be very sad if I didn’t get at least a taste of in the summer: BLTs, caprese salad and panzonela. All three dishes say “summer” to me. The recipes are sort of non-recipes — the amounts don’t matter so much and the ingredients are either self-evident or flexible.
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