Monday, August 09, 2010

August Panzanella: cooking without a map

The other day I heard someone say that they started every meal by walking into the kitchen and asking themselves "what do I have?" This is an idea I love. This is also, I realize, how I cook. 

It didn't used to be. I used to plan everything. Each meal required multiple recipes, and if I needed a teaspoon of fresh chopped thyme, I'd get it, or save the recipe for another time.

Now I'm on a shoestring budget. Often it doesn't matter what I'm in the mood for. I need to use what I've already invested in, stretching the contents of the fridge and pantry into something that will satisfy. Sometimes I can make something out of nothing. The other week it was a light dinner of sauteed patty pan squash, torn basil leaves, and goat cheese.

This cooking without a map is a coveted skill, and one I am proud to hone. And what gives me the most delight are the meals I cook up that are even better than what I could make if I had all the money in the world.

Really good panzanella is made with chunks of good bread that has been fried lightly in olive oil and then tossed immediately with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, and greens. The other times I've made panzanella its been underwhelming, in part because I haven't been willing to douse my pan with shimmering pools of olive oil.

Panzanella does not usually call for bacon. But I had good bacon and was feeding a fellow with a bottomless pit stomach. The addition of bacon to my panzanella made me think that I could fry my bread in the bacon grease. It was a decadent and daring idea. It was also something that made me slightly squeamish: all that fat! All that grease!

I did it anyway, deciding I only lived once and that summer would be over soon, taking with it any hope of frying bread in bacon grease again. I tossed everything together at just the right moment, dressing it quickly and serving it in its hot meets cold, salty meets sweet, crunchy meets creamy, perfection. I couldn't have planned it any better.

There isn't really a recipe -- do you really need a recipe to make a salad? -- but here's what I used:
2 large heirloom tomatoes; I like big juicy bites
a handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
2 medium sized mozzarella balls, cut into chunks
2 cupfuls of arugula
5 slices bacon
1/2 of a five day old baguette, hacked into crouton sized hunks
leftover sweet onion vinaigrette from the epic savory peach salad
salt and pepper

Sweet onion vinaigrette:
1/2 small sweet onion
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (the best you've got, it's worth it)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1/4 lemon
Slice the onion in quarters and cut into very delicate rings. Place in a small bowl. Add vinegars, olive oil, and lemon juice to the onion bowl, stir and let sit while you prepare the salad, stirring occasionally. I like to make this a few hours in advance, if time allows. The flavors mellow. 

Combine tomato chunks, basil, mozzarella, and arugula in a large bowl. Set aside.
Fry bacon in skillet till it is nice and crispy. Remove to plate lined with paper towel and allow to drain.
Fry croutons in all that bacon grease. If your bacon isn't very greasy, you might add some olive oil.
When bread is hot and crispy, add to salad and toss, seasoning with salt, pepper, and vinaigrette.
Panzanella is one of summer's greatest pleasures. Enjoy.


Shannalee said...

Great minds think alike! I made a similar panzanella this weekend, also because I was using up what I had, also to celebrate summer, and it was wonderful.

Indie.Tea said...

I've actually never had panzanella...I wonder if I can substitute something for the bacon? It certainly looks delicious!
Re: your comment...I think the cake would travel if you took it unassembled'd probably want to take the cake, berries, and creme fraiche and assemble it when you got to Pt. Reyes. I am a little jealous of you going to Pt. Reyes, it must be beautiful at this time of year

Tayler said...

I love the idea of cooking without a map, and you have a great way of putting it into words! I really enjoy reading your blog Anne!

Erin MacPherson said...

Hi Anne- Thanks for getting in touch!! I love your blog.... the recipes looks SO good. I love panzanella! Anyway, I didn't realize you were a foodie writer... would you ever be interested in writing recipes for a food newsletter I publish for Nick? It gets about 85,000 subs so it's pretty good publicity (especially when your book is coming out).

Tell me more about your book? Is it a biography? Who is publishing it? My book is coming out in January from Guideposts. It's a pregnancy guide... and thank goodness it's DONE and in my editor's hands. Whew. I have a second one (a devotional I'm co-authoring) coming out in May.

leslie [the whole plate] said...

you described the way i cook as well - i think there's something so wonderful about taking stock of what you have and coming up with a dish that way. ingenuity at its finest.

i recently found your blog and am really enjoying your writing!