For me, tomatoes are the highlight of summer. They are best, at their sweetest and juiciest, during the peak of the season, from June through to August. Panzanella is an old-school Italian peasant dish, a spectacular combination of leftover scraps of stale bread and fresh, ripe tomatoes. Although probably classed as a salad, this amazing plate of food is, for me, often a meal in its own right.
The quality of bread is important; you want a crusty sourdough with big air pockets. Tear it into bite-sized chunks and leave them uncovered to go stale for a few days. They should be as hard as possible. The rest of the dish is based around a simple dressing made from the juice of the tomatoes: cut them into chunky pieces, season with sea salt and leave in a colander for 20 minutes. Squeezing them out with your hands releases the juices and you simply add vinegar and extra virgin olive oil to make a sharp, powerful dressing. The stale bread is then added to this to soak up all the flavour. It's amazing.
- 400 g tomatoes ((mixed varieties))
- 1 yellow pepper
- 2 spring onions
- 2 handfuls basil leaves
- 4 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 thick slices stale bread, torn into pieces
- 4 anchovies
Heat the oven to 200C. Sprinkle the pepper with salt, then wrap in foil and place in the oven for around 30 minutes, until soft. Remove and allow to cool slightly before removing the seeds and peeling off the skin. Set aside.
While the pepper is cooking, roughly chop the tomatoes and generously sprinkle with sea salt. Transfer to a colander placed over a bowl for 20 minutes to allow the salt to draw the moisture out. Now squeeze the tomatoes gently with your hands into a bowl. Add the olive oil and red wine vinegar to the bowl, mix and taste it. It needs to be quite sharp to cut through the stale bread. Add the bread and leave to soak up the dressing for 10 minutes.
Finely slice the spring onions and add to the bowl with the bread. Rip the pepper into bite-sized pieces and add to the bowl too. Add the tomatoes, basil, anchovies and a sprinkling of cracked black pepper. Mix thoroughly. Taste and add more salt and/or olive oil if necessary. Serve immediately.