An image search for “panzanella” will return countless photos of bread and tomatoes in beautiful wooden bowls. This makes sense, because wooden bowls are the preferred vessel for anything “Tuscan,” and bread and tomatoes are the two principle ingredients in panzanella, a summer salad made with staled loaves and ripe produce.
Well, summer it is not, but “bread salad” is just the kind of thing I want after a month and a half of winter holiday eating. It’s comforting and satiating, because of the bread; but it’s also a salad, which means vegetables—something you could probably use a bit more of right now. Here are several strategies for building a wintertime panzanella.
Start with a hearty bread
The traditional Tuscan loaf will work just fine, as will anything with a chewy texture and open, airy crumb, like sourdough or ciabatta; or anything crusty, like French or Italian. But, seeing that it’s winter, you should also feel emboldened to use something a little more moody, like a toothsome, sweet brown bread or a dark rye.
Cube or tear the bread into bite-sized pieces, then dry it out in the oven. (Panzanella is traditionally made with stale bread, but as we’ve covered previously, drying your bread, even if it is already a bit stale, will give your salad a better flavor and texture:
Drying is the simple act of removing as much moisture as you can from your bread, usually in a low-temp oven, resulting in cracker-y, crispy cubes. Staling is a little different: Moisture does evaporate, but it also migrates from swollen starch granules into the airy spaces in the crumb and into the bread’s crust. Those starches then realign and recrystallize without the moisture, resulting in bread that is dry, but not crisp. Instead of crispy little cubes, you get leathery, chewy pieces…which is not what I personally want in my favorite bread-based side dish.
Place your bread cubes in a 275℉ oven for 45 minutes, tossing with a spatula every 10-15 minutes to encourage even drying. Remove once they’ve just started to get some color on the edges.
Swap tomatoes for winter produce
Unless you live in the southern hemisphere, it is unlikely you’ll find a good tomato at the store right now, but that’s OK. Plenty of winter plant parts are in season right now.
Tomatoes—the primary non-bread ingredient in this salad—bring bright acidity and a little bit of sweetness to play off the starchy bread. Supremed or sliced citrus fruit can add the same juicy tang, and there are so many gorgeous specimens in season right now. (Add blood oranges for drama.) Apples and pears aren’t as juicy, but they pack in acid and a delightful crunch. Pick your favorite.
Squash is another piece of produce that’s right at home in a bread-y salad. Roasted butternut or sautéed delicata are sweet and substantial, and beautiful when splashed with a punchy vinaigrette. You can also add a bitter green like radicchio or massaged kale if you want to further bulk up your bowl with roughage.
Add some cheese
Cheese isn’t a traditional panzanella ingredient, but I can’t imagine a winter salad without it. Something funky will pair best with apples, pears, and squash, so get a really nice blue, feta, or chèvre, and chill it for easy crumbling. A sharp shredded cheddar or nutty aged gouda would also be quite effective.
Don’t forget the alliums
Onions are the third most popular and prevalent panzanella ingredient, and there’s no reason to omit them in the winter. Don’t overthink it: Thinly slice your favorite raw onion or shallot and add it to the mix. If you want to think a little, you can toss caramelized onions with the apples or pears before introducing them to the bread.
Dress with care
The biggest panzanella mistake you can make is overdressing. Dried bread can handle more liquid than fresh, squishy bread, but you don’t want your salad swimming in vinaigrette. The easiest way to prevent this is to make a punchy, high-acid dressing, so a little bit goes a long way. This template will get you there, but I’ve been weirdly into this cheap-o vinaigrette lately, and it can be made with a few pantry staples. Drizzle, don’t douse, and serve immediately, or let sit at room temperature for an hour to let the flavors meld.