Unbeknownst to me, I insulted everyone before the meal even began. I was cooking for my Florentine friends for the first time since moving there and was eager to use all the amazing Italian produce from the local mercato. What I didn't know is that as much as Florentines are serious about fashion they're even more serious about food. And when it comes to Tuscan food, they're adamant about keeping traditional things traditional. Here I was thinking I had just started to get acquainted to my life in Italy -- finally confident in both my Italian language and cooking -- only to find out I had totally goofed. You see I had messed with one of the most sacred Florentine dishes, panzanella.
To call my friends panzanella purists doesn't even begin to explain it. The panzanella is one of the most famous dishes to come out of the region because -- like so many amazing Italian recipes -- the beauty is how much flavor results from so few ingredients. Never ones to waste food, Tuscans would soak day-old bread in water or vinegar then combine it with onions, oil, and nothing else. Maybe tomatoes and basil once those ingredients became the norm in Italy, but not one thing more. Then there was, me. Feeling adventurous, I had put handfuls of arugula, some fresh buffalo mozzarella, some Tropea onion (from the south of Italy not Tuscany), a diced English cucumber, and loads of balsamic vinegar. All things that seemed fair game since I was in Italia but all things that my Florentine friends frowned upon.
A debate worthy of the UN erupted as everyone argued the ways in which I had breached panzanella code. They then explained their own methodologies, teaching me how long to soak the bread (long enough but not too long), how it must be torn by hand, then tossed with vinegar (but never the expensive balsamico from Modena), and how the only acceptable onion is the red Tuscan variety. But then they tried my salad. And, luckily, they liked it; so much so that it became our standard summertime salad from then on.
Years have since passed and I've made so many versions of panzanella, I couldn't begin to list them all. But that's the beauty of this dish: so many flavors work fabulously. This year it's been about the peaches -- for the record all the stone fruit has been positively dreamy -- so I've been grilling peaches and nectarine and some herbed country bread for my latest act of panzanella blasphemy. It's so far from traditional I don't dare ask my posse of panzanella purists to try it, but it's for the better as I'm not sure I'd want to share it with them anyhow.
halved and sliced paper thin
sliced paper thin
or your favorite good-quality citrus-infused olive oil, divided
cut into sixths
cut into 1 inch-slices
Heat a grill to medium heat. Meanwhile, combine shallots and 2 tablespoons of the vinegar in a small nonreactive bowl, season with each a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar, stir to combine, and set aside for at least 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, garlic, and 3 tablespoons of the oil, season with salt, toss to combine, and set aside.
Brush bread on both sides with 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil, place on grill, and cook until charred on both sides, about 5 minutes. Set bread aside to cool slightly. Brush peaches with remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, season with salt, and and grill, cut-side down, until just charred but still firm, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
The salad can be made through up to this point up to 2 hours ahead.
When bread is cool enough to handle, cut or tear into bite-sized pieces. Add the shallots and vinegar to the bread and toss to coat. Just before serving, add the tomatoes to the bread mixture, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, taste, and drizzle with remaining tablespoon of oil or vinegar, as desired. Thinly slice basil and scatter over the top then place salad on a serving plate and reserve any remaining dressing. Add peaches to remaining dressing and gently turn to coat. Top salad with peaches and serve.
Food styling and photography by Aida Mollenkamp