There is often a big discussion among Italians regarding the ingredients of this traditional dish. In particular, much focus is on the cucumber. Traditional panzanella found in Florence never includes cucumbers, but in Sienna (just a short distance away), cucumbers are always part of the dish. Most Italians, however, don’t stress too much about the ingredients and add other ingredients which they feel adds goodness to the dish. There is in fact a version of panzanella in Garfagnana called panzanella del prete, which includes many additional ingredients like radicchio, fennel, carrots, diced ham, anchovies in oil, crumbled tuna, boiled eggs, capers and even diced cheese. Strips of red or yellow peppers are also often included to add a certain decorative color. Today, a fashionable panzanella will be made with boiled pearl barley instead of crumbled bread.
I believe this is a dish which defines the Italian spirit in cooking, so I prefer keeping my panzanella very light and only use a few ingredients…but all of the ingredients must be the best quality you can find! Here’s how I have learned to make the traditional version common south of Florence.
Yield: about 6 servings
400 gr. stale bread
4 ripe tomatoes
2 red onions
2 cucumbers (optional)
red wine vinegar
Cut the bread into thick slices and place them in cold water for about 10 minutes. Working with a bit of bread at a time, squeeze them between your hands, making a motion as you would be rubbing your hands. Allow the crumbs to fall into a large bowl (the bread should be as dry as possible after this rubbing and squeezing exercise).
Slice the tomatoes and remove the seeds (I usually skip this part because I don’t mind the seeds). Thinly slice the onions and add them to the tomatoes and bread. Slice the cucumbers and remove the seeds (peel them also if you are using large cucumbers), then add them to the mix. Add some basil leaves, then season with salt and gently toss with enough olive oil to just coat everything – keep it light and don’t use too much oil in the salad. Keep in a cool place or refrigerate until ready to serve. Season with a bit of vinegar and some more oil just before serving.
Adapted from Il Grande Libro Della Vera Cucina Toscana