Tuesday, November 16, 2010

bread salad: the good and the bad

I really only started cooking after I had my own kitchen and couldn't rely on my parents or the caf to feed me. I knew my way around the kitchen from helping out my parents, but until the summer after my junior year, it wasn't a place that I chose to spend much time in. That June, I found myself cooking for ten on a service trip to New Orleans, when no one else seemed comfortable stepping up to the plate. With very limited resources and absolutely no recipes, I somehow managed to make something that everyone ate without complaint. I wouldn't call that dinner a triumph, but I would say that it kindled something deep inside me. Bolstered by that success, I began to feel drawn to the kitchen.

After my trip to New Orleans, I went to Europe for two months. Obviously, food was a big part of that trip, and I didn't have to prepare most of it. Traveling with friends through Britain, Spain and France, there was always another restaurant, another sandwich shop, another gelato shop. When we finally got to Italy, Mike, Marianne and I stayed in a small apartment with a tiny little stove in Cinque Terra. One night we bought pasta and lots of fresh veggies in the town of Riomaggiore, and I cooked dinner. It was just a simple pasta dish, but I got a real thrill out of making something tasty from quality ingredients.

From Cinque Terra, we went to Pisa and to Rome, and then we went our separate ways– Marianne back to New York, Mike to Albania, and I to Florence. There, I had an apartment with five other American girls for a month. It was a fifth floor walkup, but there were three bedrooms, a tiny living room, a rooftop balcony with a view of the Duomo (*sigh*), and a pretty nice kitchen. Obviously, I ate out a great deal in Florence, but I also went shopping at the San Lorenzo Market and started making myself dinner.

I probably only cooked three or four times while I was in that apartment, but it was always kind of fun and exciting, even if the results weren't that spectacular. I remember making a great pasta dish with onions and cannellini beans, and calling up my Nona to get her recipe for pasta in ricotta cheese sauce. Again, nothing super fancy, but I got quite a sense of accomplishment from throwing those dishes together without a recipe.

Of course, after a while I felt like making something more traditionally Florentine. I don't remember where, but I did find a recipe for a bread salad called panzanella that Italian peasants made with their stale bread. I had lots of stale bread, and it seemed easy, so I decided to whip up a batch of panzanella.

soggy panzenella

Unfortunately, it was soggy and bland, and a total disappointment. I figured I must have done something very wrong. I was a novice cook, and I didn't think it was possible that I could be so unimpressed with traditional Italian food. I love me some peasant food, so this mushy mess just couldn't be right– could it?

Well last month I gave panzanella another shot, and let me tell you the result was exactly the same. Totally bland, even loaded up with basil, garlic, roasted red pepper, tomatoes and sauteed spinach. The bread, though toasted absorbed all the moisture from the veggies, turning the salad into a cold, wet, unappetizing pile of sludge.

Basically, I don't know why this dish hasn't been put out to pasture. Panzanella is just not good. Luckily, I have an alternative for you that is way better.

it's not panzanella– it's way better

Though this dish has a lot of the same ingredients as panzanella, it manages to avoid getting soggy and gross. I cubed the day old bread, but instead of toasting it, I melted some butter in a cast iron skillet, and then tossed in the bread. I let it sit until it got really crispy, and almost burned. Then I stirred all the bread around, letting it soak up all that butter goodness. Almost saturated with butter, the bread stayed crispy on the outside, even when I mixed it with sauteed arugula and pan fried tomatoes. I threw all that on a plate and topped it with some goat cheese, plenty of cracked black pepper and a fried egg.

toasty buttery bread with goat cheese, pan-fried tomatoes and wilted arugula

Now that's what I call a delicious bread salad.

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