There are two things you’ll almost always find on my kitchen counter at this time of year: ripe tomatoes and stale bread. The first is a blessing, of course; the second less so. But between them, I usually have a head start on dinner.
If the bread is only slightly stale, use it as a base for bruschetta or, if the tomatoes are really ripe, pa amb tomàquet. For the latter, toast the bread lightly, then rub a cut tomato over the rough surface until it disintegrates, with the bread gradually absorbing all of the tomato’s juices. This is good as-is, or spread it with a smear of goat cheese or top it with a slice of jamón serrano, prosciutto or Spanish pickled white anchovies, or just a shard of pecorino Romano.
If the bread is really stale — I’m talking rock hard here — grind it to crumbs in the food processor along with garlic and fresh herbs. Then stuff this into tomato halves, drizzle with olive oil and bake until the tomato is nearly melting.
But my favorite tomato-stale bread combination lately has been panzanella. This is a Tuscan bread salad — think of it almost as a warm-weather version of a bread pudding. As hot as it’s been, I’ve been making it a couple of times a week.
Panzanella is bread soaked in the juices of ripe tomatoes, with only the barest accompaniments — cucumbers, red onions and a pungent vinaigrette. Put it out with some cubes of fresh feta, a few olives and a bottle of rosé, and even weather this hot begins to seem a treat.
There’s no single official version of panzanella. It’s the kind of home cooking that is based equally on desperation and inspiration, and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of different recipes if you look hard enough.
Mine takes something from many of the versions I’ve cooked over the years, including what I consider the key ingredient, a sharp vinaigrette from Marcella Hazan made by muddling anchovies, capers and garlic in vinegar before adding olive oil.
The best bread for panzanella is one of those La Brea-ish round sourdough boules somewhere between slightly stale and rock hard. You need it to be quite dried out so it will absorb the tomatoes’ juices, which is the dish’s main selling point.
Some recipes call for toasting the bread before mixing it with the tomatoes, but this turns out like crunchy croutons mixed with tomatoes. Others call for the bread to be thoroughly softened with water and squeezed dry, which results in something a little too close to oatmeal for me.
The perfect panzanella is made with bread that is soft and moist but still holds together in rough cubes. You can do this by starting either with bread that has staled to the point that it barely gives when you squeeze the loaf or with bread cubes that have dried in a warm oven for an hour.
The key to a panzanella that absorbs flavors but holds together is softening the bread slightly by moistening it with water. Put the dried cubes in a colander and run them under the faucet for 30 seconds or so. Then shake them dry before adding them to the other ingredients. This keeps the bread chunks soft and moist but intact.
There are a few other finesse points that improve the dish. Reduce the bite of the red onion by soaking it in water for a half-hour before adding it. Similarly, soften the cucumber by salting it first (rinse it thoroughly before adding it to the salad).
But by far the most important detail in making a great panzanella is starting with great tomatoes. Thanks to the dressing, this recipe is good even with standard fruit, but good ones add a whole other level of complexity.
This time of year, really ripe tomatoes shouldn’t be that hard to find. They’re as common as stale bread.