The summer before my senior year of college, I waitressed in a Mediterranean restaurant in my hometown.  While most people seem to have horrific memories of working in restaurants, I’m the exact opposite.  I’ve loved every single restaurant I’ve worked in-especially this one. During the summer, the Hudson Valley fills with swarms of tourists, all looking for an escape to the country.  Subsequently, the restaurants are packed, with diners staying well beyond normal service hours.  Most of my shifts were a 6 hour whirlwind of activity, with not a minute off my feet.  I’ll take that kind of work any day in comparison to folding clothes at Banana Republic (which I also did one summer).

Often times after dinner shifts, the  wait staff would gather around the bar and enjoy a variety of dishes (usually the leftovers of whatever special was featured that night).  One night we were served a panzanella salad.  A panzanella salad traditionally consists of a variety of diced vegetables and cubed bread, tossed in a vinaigrette.  In theory it sounded good, but I was disappointed to find that the restaurant’s version was rather bland, with the bread being very dry.  Ever since then I pushed the dish out of my mind, never thinking to make it.  Then last weekend, when thumbing through my cookbooks, I came across a panzanella recipe that sounded really good. Instead of just using cubed bread, it involved transforming the bread into croutons.  I adore homemade croutons- I was intrigued.

I made the salad for a dinner party, preparing it ahead, and tossing with the vinaigrette just before we left the apartment.  This allowed the flavors to meld but kept the bread from getting too soggy.  By the time we sat down to eat, everything had come together. It was delicious.  This salad will definitely be a summer staple in our kitchen.  Next time I want to try grilling the bread, then cutting it into pieces and tossing with the salad.  How good does that sound?

Roasted Tomato Panzanella adapted from the Barefoot Contessa’s Greek Panzanella

Serves 6

1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1 english cucumber (or three small ones), diced

1/2 c chopped basil

1/2 medium size white onion, thinly sliced

1/2 a baguette, cut in 1 inch cubes

3 T olive olive oil

s+p

For the Dressing:

1/2 c olive oil

1/4 c red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp salt

several grinds fresh black pepper

1 tsp mustard

1 large clove garlic, minced

pinch of sugar

1/2 tsp dried oregano

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a small roasting pan, toss cherry tomatoes with  1 T olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.  Roast for 10-12 minutes until tomatoes are slightly tender (not falling apart).  Set aside to cool. (Roasting tomatoes really brings out the flavor, making un-ripe tomatoes flavorful and sweet.  This is an excellent technique for using tomatoes in salads during their off season).

Set a large sauce pan with 2 T olive to medium heat.  Allow oil to heat for 5 minutes.  Throw in cubed bread, top with s+p to taste, and toss well to coat with oil.  Lower heat to medium low, and cook for 10-15 minutes (tossing frequently) until bread is nicely browned.  Set aside to cool.

Place the cucumber, onion, and basil in a large bowl. Add in the tomatoes and bread.  Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing and pour over the salad.  Toss well, but gently, so as not to break up the tomatoes.  Place in fridge for at least 30 minutes before, so flavors can develop.  Taste for seasoning just prior to serving.

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