Panzanella: These romantic Tuscan salads blend hunks of crusty bread with grilled veggies and tomatoes for hearty end-of-the-summer meals.

WELL-BREAD SALADS

September 18, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Americans finally are warming to the idea of bread salad -- once they get past the name.

Somehow, the mix sounds so unexciting and mundane. We're just not used to bread in our salad bowls except as boring croutons scattered on top.

But this Italian salad -- also more exotically called panzanella -- deserves a try. It's quick and easy to prepare and offers a tantalizing blend of flavors with hearty bread cubes, fresh basil, fruity olive oil and vegetables of the season. It's a perfect meal or side dish for late summer's bounty of produce.

The lure of bread as the main ingredient also seems to reflect our increasing appreciation of the staple, which over the past five years has risen dramatically in popularity. Consider the number of bakeries around town and proliferation of bread machines on the market.

Even bread pudding has gained new respect recently.

Part of bread salad's identity crisis probably can be attributed to Americans' unfamiliarity with it. You usually don't find it in delis or on the menus of too many restaurants -- just yet.

"I think it's great," says Gino Troia, chef-owner of Cafe Troia in Towson. "But it's so cheap to make I would be embarrassed to serve it to my customers." He adds, "It would be fun to have it on the tables."

The salad is said to have originated in the Tuscan countryside of central Italy as a poor man's meal because of its inexpensive ingredients. "It's very popular in Italy," says Giovanni Rigato, chef-owner of Boccaccio in Little Italy.

But the salad isn't offered in restaurants in Italy either -- in the country or the cities.

"It's the kind of food you make at home," Troia explains.

The key to its success is making or buying coarse bread, both chefs say. Troia suggests trying the country bread at Stone Mill Bakery's several locations in the Baltimore area.

After that, home chefs can use their imaginations, adding favorite vegetables, plain or grilled. Jars of roasted red peppers also can be substituted for fresh ones.

Tomatoes are a traditional addition. Again, cooks can experiment with different kinds -- from cherry tomatoes to yellow and plum varieties or none at all.

Troia recommends using lots and lots of good olive oil, which eventually soaks into the bread cubes.

Various recipes call for stale or toasted bread. Feel free to interchange, depending on time constraints. Also, try larger cubes for a more distinctive flavor.

And Rigato says it's not necessary to go heavy on the garlic either. He advises rubbing a cut garlic clove around the inside of a wooden bowl so the result won't be overpowering.

The following recipes are merely guidelines. With a little creativity, bread salads -- or panzanella -- can be tailored to individual tastes. After all, what's in a name?

Bread and vegetable salad with mozzarella

Makes 4 servings

DRESSING:

1/3 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves

5 tablespoons olive oil

4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and dried (optional)

2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 cloves garlic

SALAD:

1/2 loaf Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

4 large sweet red peppers

2 zucchini, diagonally sliced into rounds

8 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into slices

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare dressing: Combine basil, olive oil, anchovies if using, vinegar and garlic in food processor or blender. Whirl until basil and anchovies are pureed. Cover and set aside.

Prepare salad: Toast bread cubes on baking sheet in preheated oven, stirring occasionally, until crisp and golden, about 8 minutes. Transfer to large mixing bowl. Increase oven temperature to broil.

Broil peppers on broiler pan 6 inches from heat, turning, until blackened all over, about 15 minutes. Transfer peppers to paper bag and seal. When cool enough to handle, core and peel peppers and discard seeds. Cut peppers into thick lengthwise slices, about six per pepper. Add to bread cubes in bowl.

Sprinkle zucchini with a little water. Broil on broiler pan 4 inches from heat for 5 minutes per side or until browned. Add to bread and peppers in bowl. Add mozzarella.

Pour dressing over salad; toss well to combine. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature for bread to soften slightly. Serve.

Make-ahead tip: The vegetables can be roasted up to two days ahead and refrigerated, covered, while the croutons and dressing can be prepared several days ahead. The salad with dressing should not be assembled until 30 minutes before serving.

-- From "The Family Circle Cookbook"

Tomato bread salad

Makes 8 servings

3 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, cut into large cubes

2 cups thinly sliced red onions

1 cup slivered fresh basil leaves

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

dash of red wine vinegar

salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste

3 cups herby garlic croutons

CROUTONS:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups stale bread cubes (about 1/2 -inch thick)

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon snipped fresh chives

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

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