Monday, August 09, 2010
August Panzanella: cooking without a map
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.