Summer in a Bowl: a Purple Italian Panzanella Salad

If you ever had an Italian ‘nonna’, or have ever visited an Italian farmhouse and had a peek inside the kitchen, you’ll know how there are several things you might find.
You might probably find a braid of garlic hung up next to the stove, or a bunch of rosemary hanging upside-down. You might find tomato stains on the hobs, or you might find constantly wet tea towels on the handle of the oven. You might find a wooden rolling pin and pasta cutters hidden in some closet, and, if you opened the cabinets, you might find jars of homemade jams.
You might find any number of these things, but there is one thing you will always, always find in every Italian farmhouse: stale bread, sitting patiently in its container waiting to be recycled.

Bread was too precious a thing to be wasted or tossed. Bread was always homemade out of whole wheat flour, and it actually took days to get really stale. Once it turned too hard to be consumed as is, it would be used for bread puddings, bread lasagna, or made into breadcrumbs.

Purple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural Food

 

Purple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural Food

The barn in my uncle’s vegetable garden.

Most importantly, bread was not the same thing it is today. Flour was stone-milled out of whole grains, which were naturally grown organic. Bread were dark, dense, nutty-smelling loaves, leavened with sourdough starter. It was the most genuine thing they had on the table. Funny how that was seen as a poor people’s thing, and they wished they had the regular, tasteless white bread that represented all those who had money to buy it.
As wealth increased, those natural, tasty, wholesome leaves disappeared from our tables, only to make its appearance again just a few years ago. I Italy, all that processed, canned stuff you could find on the supermarkets has been like a sort of tidal wave for the past 50 years, crashing over our life, drowning us, only to recede at the end, and now we’re left with the aftermath of this processed lifestyle calamity: increased rates of people who die of cancer, strokes, and other ailments. Bread is, unfortunately, the head of the line of processed foods, and is therefore demonized at the light of all the bad things it represents.

But bread deserves a second chance.
Learn to shop for flours (ever checked my guides here and here?). If you can, get and learn to care for a sourdough starter. Eat less bread – treat it like any other carb, do not use it to go with pasta and/or potatoes but use it singularly, and rotate it with your other carb sources, but choose the best you can find. Choose dark bread: rye, spelt, whole grain, enriched with seeds and split grains. Oven-baked is the best scenario possible. Choose it from a local bakery, and enjoy every bite of it.  I eat very little bread (all those with PCOS or any sort of ovary cyst should avoid it), but I make mine at home or shop for it wisely, and enjoy a slice about once or twice a week. I like to portion my bread and freeze the slices, so I can pull one out whenever I want.
I am not for demonizing bread as I am not for consuming it every day, with every meal. I am for choosing it wisely and avoiding white flours as much as possible.

There is a wonderful bakery in Cattolica that makes all sorts of whole breads. My dad is friends with the owner, and he often gifts us bags of leftover bread to feed the hens. More often than not, that day-old bread is still so good that my mom pulls out some pieces out of the bag and briefly reheats it, then dunks it in what is left over from her salad dressing. This is what my family would always make in the summer, when the heat was blistering and the only colors that seemed to exist were the gold of the haystacks and the red of the tomatoes: they made Panzanella. Panzanella is a simple salad made by letting stale bread soak for several hours in the fridge with tomatoes and onion, sometimes cucumber, dressed with vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, which mingle together and ooze the most flavorful juice on the bread. This recipe is a staple around the regions of Tuscany, Marche, and Umbria, as well as other parts of Southern Italy, where it is usually made with different kinds of bread.

Purple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural FoodPurple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural Food

This year, summer is being unkindly hot to us. Still, in spite of this blistering heat and the constant need to water every inch of greenery 3 times a day, our garden is thriving, its plants heavy with juicy produce. Panzanella is the perfect representation of high-quality Italian ingredients: wonderful stone-milled flour, the sweetest balsamic vinegar, and our beloved extra virgin olive oil. Plus basil, tomatoes and Tropea onions. I am proud to write this recipe for Expedia UK’s World on a Plate project and represent Italy, and I could not be more thrilled to join the party with this salad.
Seeing such a wonderful list of ingredients makes me so proud of my land. I hope that all of you who travel to Italy will try all these amazing things.

Purple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural Food

The road leading to our veggie gardens.

Purple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural FoodPurple Italian Panzanella Salad with Sunflower Seeds | Hortus Natural Cooking - Italian, Vegetarian, Natural Food

This Italian panzanella salad is exactly what we crave during these hot summer days: it is fresh, easy to make, and does not imply turning on any source of heat. Traditionally, panzanella is made with white wine vinegar, but I modernized it a bit and made it somewhat richer: I used balsamic vinegar instead, and added toasted seeds to amp up its nutritional value. Plus, I made it purple!! How cool is that?! I made it with the purple tomatoes and purple basil I’ve grown myself. This was the first year that I actually grew something of my own, and I cannot believe how large my tomato bushes have gotten!
The addition of fresh marjoram is my own, as I really like it. Pesto is also a great addition if you have an open jar in your fridge, but nothing to go out of your way about – we’re adding tons of basil anyway.

Modern Panzanella Salad
 
Serves 2 as a main
Ingredients
  • 150g (4 large slices) whole wheat or rye sourdough bread, one or several days old
  • 20 ripe, juicy cherry tomatoes
  • 1 medium-large cucumber
  • 1 small red onion (or more to taste)
  • 5 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 5 tbsp water
  • 15 medium basil leaves, finely chopped or torn
  • (extra) a small sprig of marjoram
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil + 2 tsps, or more
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2 tbsps toasted sunflower or poppy seeds
  • (extra) one tbsp of pesto, if you have some lying around
Instructions
  1. Soak the onion with water and 2 tablespoons of vinegar for a couple hours. This makes it less strong and easier on your digestion (but if you're really hardcore go ahead and add it straight to the bowl!)
  2. Add the bread to shallow dish. Whisk together the vinegar, the tbsp of olive oil and water and sprinkle over the bread. Leave to rest for half an hour or up to several hours. When ready, cut the tomatoes straight on the bread to avoid losing any of the juice. Add the cucumbers and loosely drained onion, basil, marjoram if using, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for at least a couple of hours.
  3. When ready, toss well to break the bread and mix the ingredients in a bowl. Finish with the extra virgin olive oil. Enjoy as a simple main dish, or add some beans to make it more complete.

 

What is your favorite way of using up old bread? Do you have any special recipe? And what do you think about this whole bread situation?

 

  1. As you were describing the Italian farm kitchen, I was seeing my grandmothers kitchen – a Portuguese one.
    My grandma was the village baker, so bread is something that has always been part of our family. I loved reading this text from you because ir reminded me of such great times :)

    • Really?! I actually always imagined Portugal’s past to be very similar to ours. It’s a place I’d really love to visit at some point! So happy this post could evoke such a nice feeling!

  2. How ironic! I just posted a Panzanella salad yesterday to be sent out this afternoon. And I also talk about bread and the importance in la tavola povera. Our whole family loves Panzanella salad although I didn’t add cucumber and onion to it. I omit the cakes because they used to bother my papà’s and mammà’s stomachs so I just got in the habit of omitting those two ingredients. I love using balsamic vinegar and I purchase a white balsamic that is so mild and flavorful. I like it because it doesn’t change the color of some dishes. Great recipe and your photos are absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I always enjoy reading your stories — your narrative is excellent.

    • I just saw the post – so nice! It really seems to be a thing in the US to add bell pepper to this recipe. I never saw them added to panzanella in any region! But oh well, the point is soaking bread in vinegar anyway, any addition is welcome, right?
      Thank you for the compliments, as always! <3 xo

  3. So true Valentina! Despite using all organic flours when it comes to white flours, there is no doubt that dark, whole grain and rich sourdough breads bring such good vibes to our bodies. I’m falling in love with rye and einkorn more and more.

    My favorite way of using old bread is to make croutons and then use them in a soup in a winter or in a salads like yours in the summer. But similarly as you I try to make as much as bread I can handle on my own (my boyfriend is gluten-free).

    That purple tomatoes and bambi, how cute and so unreal!! :)

    • Oh man, so funny (well, not) that your boyfriend is GF!! Do you ever make GF bread? Like, I can imagine the smell of your bread from behind the screen!!
      Croutons for soup are great! Love my dark flours <3 I saw that you have a mill - that's too cool!

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  5. So many beautiful photos…I want to vist!! :)

    Your words in this post are perfect and so much great info too! Love the salad!

  6. That barn in the garden is too much — gorgeous. I have purple tomatoes in my garden…I can’t wait to try this. Beautiful post Valentina!! xx

  7. What an amazing story!The photos make me feel like I want to jump on the plain and visit your breathtaking country and eat this scrumptious salad :)
    Ps.So jealous of your purple tomatoes!So cool!

  8. Congratulations on representing your homeland for the project, Valentina. The recipe truly makes me think of the Italy’s wonderful ingredients to offer to the world. Someday, my husband & I hope to visit your precious country and see for ourselves all those things you have been telling me about through your blog. :) It’s truly amazing how your writing and your gorgeous photos led me to believe, in a brief moment, that I, too, may have that ‘kitchen’ and that ‘nonna.’

    Meanwhile, sending you huge hugs from San Francisco :)

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