Tuscan Tomatoes

Panzanella combines two ingredients Tuscans hold dear -- fresh tomatoes and old bread

THE revival of handmade bread that has, happily, taken hold in many parts of the country means more leftover bread. Just the other day I received in the mail a small softcover book, Cooking With Artisan Bread, by the pioneering and excellent baker Gwenyth Bassetti, one of the founders of the Grand Central bakeries, in Seattle and Portland, and Jean Galton, who writes in her introduction, "Our hope is that this book will spare you the guilt of throwing away another wedge of slightly stale -- but still wonderful -- bread." In Italy the uses for stale bread go far beyond French toast and croutons, and some American chefs are so crazy about the Italian way with old bread that they have taken to increasing their bread orders just to let some go stale.

Their aim, often, is to make panzanella, a homey, refreshing salad that takes advantage of the late-summer bounty of ripe tomatoes and offers all the pleasures of dipping bread into the collected juices at the bottom of the salad bowl. Panzanella is the pizza of Tuscany -- a bread-and-tomato combination known round the world, perhaps because it's an easy one-dish meal. This one requires no cooking and none of the careful presentation that, say, salade niçoise does. (The origin of the lovely name, including its relation to pane, the word for bread, is disputed.) Like pizza, the original version is uncomplicated -- panzanella constants are bread, tomatoes, onions, oil and vinegar, and basil or parsley, with celery and cucumber as near-constants -- and best understood before a cook explores the myriad variations.

Tuscans aren't much good at making pasta, but they did invent the Renaissance. In frugal, blunt Tuscany it's beans or bread. "Tuscans, like Yankees," the Maine native Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who for twenty-five years has had a house in the heart of Tuscany, writes in her new "are thrifty in their approach to food (truth is, one of their favorite foods is leftovers), and they share a similar passion for beans: Other Italians call them mangiafagioli, bean-eaters."

Tuscan bread isn't like any of the sourdough breads currently in fashion here. It's denser and chewier -- and famously saltless, although Jenkins has never found a wholly plausible reason for this (the possibilities include parsimony and tax avoidance). Saltless bread does keep longer; salt attracts moisture, which in turn attracts mold. And bread made with a starter dough, like traditional Tuscan bread and much of the new American sourdough bread, takes longer to get moldy than bread made with packaged yeast. I've never found real Tuscan bread in an American artisan bakery, despite the many good breads I've tasted that go by the name: Americans don't have a taste for saltless bread, let alone the patience for the long, long chew of old Tuscan bread. About the only way you can observe this long life in your own bread box is to bake Tuscan bread, following the directions in Flavors of Tuscany or in Carol Field's ever-reliable Italian Baker.

Traditional Tuscans bake bread only once every ten days. After the fifth day they think about making one of the dishes based on pane raffermo, "firm bread," of which there are, naturally, a lot. One is crostini, slices of bread covered with chicken livers or some other savory spread. Most of the great thick Tuscan soups involve pane raffermo: acquacotta ("cooked water"), a simple vegetable soup served over slices of old bread; ribollita, a cabbage-and-bean soup served both over and under slices of grilled bread that are usually drizzled with olive oil (they are also sometimes sautéed, hashlike, with thick leftover soup); and a warm cousin to panzanella -- pappa al pomodoro, bread simmered to a pap (hence the name) with tomatoes and vegetables.

is very firm. Old Tuscan bread does not shatter at the entry of a knife, as stale bread made with commercial yeast does. Under careful, steady pressure it slices into intact pieces, almost like balsa wood. Tuscans reconstitute old bread by dipping it in water, for panzanella, or broth, for crostini; the slices hold their shape. (So do the bagel-shaped barley rusks called friselle in the southern region of Puglia, which are then topped with, for instance, diced tomato, oregano, oil, salt, and pepper. These come with breakfast at Il Melograno, a hotel I love near Bari.)

Panzanella classically begins with soaking slices of stale bread in water. The liquid makes the salad cool and refreshing, and perfect for a hot summer afternoon: dressed with oil and vinegar, the salad both satisfies hunger and, the way acidic drinks like lemonade do, slakes thirst. The texture of the soaked bread is fluffy -- very much like the cracked wheat in tabbouleh or like couscous, which is not a grain but tiny pasta pellets. Stale American bread is not fluffy when soaked. It quickly turns to mush. Panzanella made with soaked American bread is more like cold pappa al pomodoro.

THE texture problem led me to try a few alterations in the usual method when I set out to make a plausible panzanella with the "rustic Italian" loaves from my local bakery: omitting the bread bath as a matter of course, and sometimes toasting the bread first. I worried, though, that I was straying too far, like most writers of Tuscan cookbooks in English. So I consulted Fabio Picchi, whose restaurant, Cibreo, is the most celebrated in Florence, at least by people searching for genuine Tuscan food made with the best ingredients -- and raw materials are everything in such an unadorned cuisine. The bearded Picchi, whose eyes seem always to be hiding an ironic smile, has the swagger of a turn-of-the-century aristocrat painted by Boldini. He is also something of a kitchen cutup, as I discovered when I assisted him at a dinner he cooked recently at the Four Seasons restaurant, in New York City, to celebrate the publication of a new edition of Faith Heller Willinger's indispensable guidebook For the dinner Picchi lugged many heavy cans of Tuscan tomatoes -- he doesn't trust imports from southerly regions.

"You're the first person to know my secret, because you're the first to ask," Picchi told me when I quizzed him on panzanella. "I don't soak the bread." This is less for texture than for taste. "I've had too much good panzanella soaked in bad water," he said, pointing out a critical and usually overlooked fact: the taste of water greatly affects a dish. (Jenkins, for instance, uses only Poland Spring water when making bread in her Maine kitchen.) "I'd rather taste just the juice of the tomatoes and the vegetables."

Picchi also condoned my other alteration. After guiding me through his way of making classic panzanella for his restaurant, which has the usual smooth, homogenous texture, he told me of a second version he makes only at home, "because you have to keep a few things for just family and friends." (To try to create a familial feeling at the Four Seasons dinner, Picchi asked the guests to imagine that they had wandered into his kitchen through the back door and were about to eat what he scrounged from the larder -- a charming but implausible idea, given the drop-dead chic of both the restaurant's legendary Pool Room and many of the guests' all-black outfits.) This second version, my favorite, is rougher and crunchier, because Picchi first toasts the bread.

THE Cibreo classic panzanella is close to what you might find on a Tuscan farm, prepared at sunup and carried in the late morning to workers in the fields. For an American approximation, tear one or two slices of half-inch-thick bread per serving into rough pieces and lay them at the bottom of a salad bowl. The slices should be firm; if they aren't, heat them on a baking sheet in a 300deg. oven until they just begin to color, and let them cool. (Jenkins cuts off the crust, but this assumes the leathery crust of Tuscan bread, a rarity here; anyway, I like the resilience of hard crust soaked in juice.)

Mix the tomatoes and other vegetables in a separate bowl, and then toss them with the bread. Like most Tuscans, Picchi uses plum tomatoes, the kind usually reserved for sauce. I recently learned the simple reason that plum tomatoes result in sweeter salads and sauces, from the enthusiastic Tomato Imperative! by Sharon Nimtz and Ruth Cousineau: gel and seeds contain most of the acid, and plum tomatoes are almost all flesh. One of my favorite summer pasta sauces is tomato flesh warmed in olive oil for fifteen to twenty minutes.

You can of course use any of the heirloom varieties that have greatly expanded the range of ripe-tomato flavors. This is, after all, a salad to showcase garden tomatoes, not out-of-season imported "vine-ripened" tomatoes from Belgium, Mexico, or Israel, however much these have improved life beyond August and September. To avoid making bread-and-tomato soup, cut round tomatoes in half and squeeze out the juice and seeds before chopping them into half-inch chunks; for six servings there should be two cups. Peeling is a nicety more important for the standard version, in which the tomato flesh should melt into the bread during thorough soaking, than for the toasted-bread version, in which the tomatoes are mixed with the bread at the last minute. Among the commonly grown heirloom varieties I find gadrooned (deeply ridged) tomatoes to be fleshy and nicely balanced between sweet and acid; zebra-striped tomatoes are a fine choice too. Yellow tomatoes are generally too watery and wan in flavor. "Sweet 100" cherry tomatoes are addictively sweet, but too seedy and liquid to be ideal for panzanella.

The onions should be minced sweet red onions, about two tablespoons for six servings; to make the flavor yet milder, soak the onion for an hour in cold water, and rinse and drain before adding to the tomatoes. Picchi likes to add about a quarter cup of diced celery heart -- the innermost baby ribs, pale and immature, with a few minced very pale leaves. Diced cucumber (about three quarters of a cup) is for Picchi and others a necessity, but he warns that the cucumber must be peeled: "What is this lazy habit of leaving the peel on? The green might be pretty, but it tastes terrible." I take the extra step of removing the jelled core section. Picchi then strews over the vegetables a positive "rain" of finely torn basil leaves -- "two big handfuls." Parsley leaves, he says, would be equally or even more Tuscan.

The olive oil should be fruity and peppery -- the strongest-flavored, freshest oil you can find, which is likely to be Tuscan. A quarter cup for six will do for a start, and if you love the oil, you can be more authentically Tuscan and as much as double the quantity. Red-wine vinegar is not part of every tomato salad -- some people prefer to taste just the sweet-acid tomato -- but it figures in any panzanella, and does make the dish more refreshing; try adding two tablespoons. Plenty of salt and black pepper finish off the tomato-vegetable mixture, along with a secret ingredient: a healthy pinch of finely ground hot red chile pepper, common in Tuscany but not in neighboring regions. Picchi obtains his every Saturday during pepper season, picked and ground fresh by his father. He also adds minced fresh garlic in quantities so small that "no one can guess that it's there"; start with one small clove and add more if you know your guests' tastes. You could also rub a cut garlic clove over the warm slices of bread before tearing them.

For the standard panzanella allow the seasoned tomatoes and bread to sit for at least an hour and a half, covered and in a cool place -- but not the refrigerator, which destroys tomato flavor. For Picchi's panzanella in famiglia, toast the sliced bread, which need not be terribly firm, to taste -- Picchi's preference is very, very lightly, to allow the other flavors to come through. (I like it burnt.) Tear the slices into small chunks and set them aside in a bowl. Combine the seasoned tomato-and-vegetable mixture (to which Picchi, being in famiglia, adds garlic with a freer hand) with the bread just before serving.

Variations include adding olives, capers, tuna, anchovies, sliced hard-boiled egg, or some combination of these; all of them together would make something like pan-bagnat, now an overstuffed, sopping-wet sandwich in Nice but originally a salade niçoise left to steep with torn old bread. Willinger, in Red, White & Greens, makes "Matzoh-nella," a takeoff from the popular matzoh brei, which begins with soaked matzoh. Odessa Piper, the chef-owner of L'Etoile Restaurant, in Madison, Wisconsin, who has done much to support farmers in her region, told me recently that her favorite midnight supper -- one she makes on late-summer nights when she gets home from her restaurant -- is mixed salad greens dressed with olive oil and rice-wine vinegar, tossed with heated focaccia or leftover pizza that she snips into bite-sized pieces right over the salad. She saves this treat for herself. Bread salad is an elemental pleasure.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of

Illustration by Maira Kalman

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Tuscan Tomatoes; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 127 - 129.