After four months in quarantine, I am certain many of you have made bread. I have too, but not sour dough as one might expect. Instead, I turned to challah, a bread I have wanted to master for years but never had the time. I have baked many loaves now, so there are often pieces left that I just could not finish immediately. Of course, French toast is my first choice for slightly stale bread, but sometimes I want something that isn't as heavy and works better for lunch or dinner. I can use the challah to thicken romesco sauce, and I can turn it into breadcrumbs or croutons, but these options don't always do the bread justice. I decided I need to go in a classier direction, which is how I landed on a Panzanella Salad. And a salad always sounds light and healthy!
This Italian salad is simple - bread soaked with olive oil and vinegar, tossed with herbs and vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. I thought this would be a great dish to showcase many colors as well, so I found items across the color rainbow. Red tomatoes and nasturtium leaves, orange kabocha squash and orange zest, yellow mango and toasted challah, green avocado, capers, and herbs, 'blue' purple potatoes, pink purple potatoes, and white goat cheese and cilantro flowers. I chose to keep almost all ingredients raw and let their natural freshness shine through, enhanced only by a mustard, orange, and fennel vinaigrette to add a teeny bit of oomph. And because I like the bread with a little crunch, I made sure to eat it right away. You can definitely let the salad sit and infuse to develop more flavor, but the bread will become soggier the longer you wait, though it will still taste wonderful. If you prefer that softer bread texture, you don't even have to toast it - just cut or tear it into pieces and combine with the other ingredients right away.
While I might have been very excited with the number of ingredients above, this salad works well if you keep it simple too. Another version I recently made included cherry tomatoes, lots of spinach and kale, shallots, olives, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and oil. I like my salad heavily dressed, and the challah and hearty greens were perfect for sopping up what was left at the bottom of the bowl.
There is no right or wrong way to create a panzanella salad. Any bread or vegetables will work, and all you need to do is aim for some sort of balance and surprise with your choice of ingredients - you want to eat them together and in varying combinations, so you do want them to meld, but an unexpected pop of flavor will keep you going back for more. And if you can hide those key ingredients that tie the whole dish together, go for it, and try to forget about them too so you can also be intrigued when you eat it! When you describe the salad to your friends, mention everything else and refer to these as the 'je ne sais quoi.' After discovering that deliciousness, they will know exactly what you mean and understand why this salad, or any salad for that matter, can be so special and so much fun to make.