How to make panzanella – recipe

Every bread-eating culture around the world has as many recipes for using up stale loaves as for bread itself: pain perdu, fattoush, roti curry … Panzanella is one of Italy’s A-team, making a virtue of the bread’s sponge-like ability to soak up flavours. This is a classic version, but it’s infinitely adaptable to other salad ingredients, herbs and seasonings.

Prep 5 min
Assembly 25 min
Serves 2-4

½ red onion (see step 1)
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
8 ripe tomatoes
Salt and black pepper
200g stale bread
(see step 4)
4 tbsp white-wine vinegar (see step 5)
1 tbsp capers
2 anchovies (optional)
1 small garlic clove
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bunch fresh basil

Peel and thinly slice the red onion, put the slices in a bowl of cold water with a pinch of salt, and leave to soak for at least 20 minutes to tame their flavour (if you prefer your raw onions fiery, skip this step). Shallots, white, yellow or spring onions can be substituted, but sweet red are the most common choice.

If you have a gas hob, put the peppers over a flame and cook, turning regularly, until they’re well blackened all over. (You can also use a blowtorch or barbecue to do this, or char them under a hot grill.)

Once blackened, put the peppers in a covered bowl or container, or plastic bag, and leave to steam and cool for 20 minutes.

Cut the tomatoes into large dice and put them, seeds and all, as well as any juices from the chopping board, in a sieve set over a bowl. Sprinkle over a little salt, toss briefly to distribute it, then leave the tomatoes to sit and drain while you prepare the other ingredients.

Just about any bread will do here, as long as it’s dry, but robust loaves such as sourdough will hold their structure better than flatbreads and bloomers. If you’re using something softer, you may wish to eat the salad sooner rather than later, before it disintegrates. Tear or cut whatever you’re using into largish chunks: I always leave the crust on for texture, but that’s up to you.

Put the chunks of bread in a large bowl and moisten with vinegar – white-wine is my preference here, but red-wine, sherry, cider or anything not too strongly flavoured is fine. Balsamic will give you a very sweet salad, so if you’d like to use it instead, go easy and add it in combination with a more neutral variety.

Drain the onion and add it to the bread bowl with the capers, drained if packed in brine, rinsed if packed in salt; you could substitute a small handful of caper berries instead, but, if you do, they’re on the large side, so I’d be inclined to chop them roughly first.

Peel or scrape the skin from the peppers, remove and discard the pith and seeds, then cut the flesh into long strips and add those, too.

Press lightly on the tomatoes to coax as much liquid as possible out of them and into the bowl below, then put the flesh in the bread bowl; reserve the juices to make the dressing.

Rinse the anchovies, if you’re using them and they’re packed in salt, or drain if in oil, then finely chop. Peel and crush the garlic.

Stir the anchovies and garlic into the tomato juice bowl, then whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary; you probably won’t need any salt, especially if you’re using anchovies and capers, but some black pepper or even a hint of chilli may be welcome.

Pour the dressing over the salad, toss gently but thoroughly, so everything’s well combined, then leave to sit for between 15 minutes and an hour.

Serve topped with torn basil leaves. Panzanella is a very decent meal in itself, but it’s also a nice accompaniment to barbecued fish, seafood or chicken, or a creamy cheese such as a fresh goat’s cheese or mozzarella.

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