Capresi and Panzanella Salads with Tomatoes and Cucumbers from Your Garden is a partial reprint from a blog originally posted on July 28, 2019, titled: “Caprese and Panzanella Salads with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil.”
Need I mention that as an Italian-American tomatoes are always the focus of my Italian summer vegetable garden? And of course, at harvest time I love to make traditional Italian Caprese and Panzanella salads!
I plant several heirloom tomato varieties every spring from the family-run nursery I’ve found where I live now in Chicagoland. Late in the summer, when all the varieties have ripened, I love mixing the the deep red tomatoes with golden yellow tomatoes to make a traditional Carpese salad. You can read all about the best method to make this salad in the reprinted blog below.
You can also read about a method to make Panzanella salad in my original blog on Italian tomato and basil salads, although my family did not make Panzanella salad when I was growing up. As an adult, I had tried this salad in in restaurants and thought it a nice change from the usual Caprese salad, so I added it to my post. Caprese and Panzanella salads, I thought, were the two important Italian tomato dishes. Recently, I learned from a blog by Emiko Davies titled “Bronzino’s Panzanella,” that Panzanella salad is indeed a popular and traditional Italian salad in Tuscany, mentioned by the great Italian writer of the Decameron, Giovanni Bronzino in a poem, prior to the appearance of tomatoes in Italy.
We can assume that Panzanella salad started out as a way to use up old bread, as stale Tuscan bread lends itself well to being softened with a sprinkle of water. A little red onion, perhaps some basil, and olive oil and red wine vinegar might have been all an Italian housewife had available to lend some flavor her bread salad. According to the recipe provided by Bronzino, cucumbers and even some arugula could be added to magically turn the bounty of summer into a crunchy and refreshing summer treat.
Serendipitously, I had been growing Armenian cucumbers in my garden for the very first time this year, when I came across Davies’ blog. When I read about Bronzino’s version of Panzanella salad, I made it myself and posted the result on Instagram on Conversationalitalian.french.
Panzanella salad made Bronzino’s way, with cucumbers, was truly a revelation. The seeds of the Armenian cucumber were easy to remove from the center of the vegetable, and without the skin this variety of cucumber was light, crunchy, and flavorful. There are no real proportions to this salad; use as much reconstituted bread as you like and as much cucumber and other ingredients as you have on hand. Now THAT’s Italian!
Read the reprinted blog below for the best methods to make Caprese and Panzanella Salad with tomatoes!
I’ve posted below the image with the method for Panzanella Salad with cucumbers!
For more recipes like these, as well as French recipes, follow me on my Instagram posts at Conversationalitalian.french.
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And now… the original story!
Making Caprese and Panzanella salads entails following a couple of simple methods, using whatever you have on hand, rather than following a strict recipe step by step. However, it is best to come as close as possible to the recommended ingredients, as the ingredients themselves will be the stars of each dish.
For the most mouth-watering Caprese salad imaginable, use fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and soft, fresh buffalo mozzarella. In fact, do not make this salad if you do not have a soft, buffalo mozzarella, as this is the mozzarella that is used in the island of Capri, just outside Naples, where the salad originated. The hard mozzarella is for cooking, as it melts easily; it is too rubbery to be eaten with the soft, vine-ripened tomatoes and will not meld with the tomato juices and olive oil properly.
Coarse sea salt adds extra flavor to the tomatoes and will draw out their juices to meld with the olive oil for the dressing. Top all with a generous drizzle of your favorite pungent or fruity, extra-virgin olive oil from Italy, rather than the a more bland olive oil that you would use for cooking on the stove top.
A note about extra-virgin olive oils: A truly fresh extra-virgin olive oil will have a bit of a peppery flavor. Most olive oils sold in the US are old enough to have lost this peppery overtone, but will retain varying degrees of fruitiness and grassiness. Taste a few first press, 100% extra-virgin olive oils from different regions of Italy and you will be surprised at the nuances in flavor each brings!
For Panzanella salad, which probably originated as a clever way to use up day-old, stale bread with red onion for flavor, be sure to use a crusty loaf of good* Italian bread that is at least two days old and has dried out and hardened. Bread that has become stale naturally will need to be sprinkled with water to soften a bit prior to making this salad. Place the bread in a small bowl and sprinkle it with water the morning before you are planning to make the salad. The end result should not leave the bread mushy; the bread should spring back to life after the water is added if you are truly working with real Italian bread. If the crust is still too hard, it can be removed. Remember that the bread will continue to soften when it is combined with the vinegar and tomato juice when you make the salad.
If you want to make Panzanella salad with fresh Italian bread, you can always cut it into slices and dry it out in the oven just enough to be crunchy, or even add a bit of olive oil and brown it a bit to make croutons.
Panzanella salad originally did not contain mozzarella, but I like to include buffalo mozzerella in small pieces (bocconcini are nice), even though this is not traditional.
And, of course, large, sweet, fresh basil leaves from the garden are an essential ingredient for both Caprese and Panzanella salads!
But, whatever ingredients you have on hand, I’m sure you will enjoy these simple and refreshing tomato and basil salads on a hot summer day! -Kathyn Occhipinti
*Good Italian bread means Italian bread made in a bakery with the correct flour and cooked so that it has the proper, crunchy crust and soft but chewy texture. Only bread that has a good texture to begin with will “spring back” to life when you sprinkle it with water! Do not attempt Panzanella salad with cheap, grocery store bread labeled “Italian bread,” which will usually have a very soft grain and often even a soft crust and turn to mush when moistened again with water. And of course, no American “white bread” please! -Kathryn Occhipinti
Dry Italian bread, cubed, or large croutons
Sprinkle the dried Italian bread with water to soften
(see comments about the proper bread to use above)
1-2 large, vine-ripened tomato, cut into small wedges
or several cherry tomatoes, halved
sprinkle lightly with sea salt
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly into crescents
Extra-virgin Italian olive oil
Italian red wine vinegar
Mozzarella, preferably soft, cubed or small bocconcini (optional)
Large, freshly picked basil leaves, hand torn
In a large dish, combine small wedges of fresh tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes and dry Italian bread (as pre-processed as above) and red onions.
Drizzle on extra virgin Italian olive oil and red wine vinegar and combine. Make sure the bread has softened enough to be edible. If not, you may want to let the ingredients sit for a bit before finishing the salad.
Then add the optional mozzarella and torn basil leaves.
Taste and drizzle with extra olive oil and vinegar if needed.
Mix again gently to combine all and enjoy!
3 large, vine-ripened tomatoes,
(each a different color to add interest;
heirloom tomatoes if desired)
Fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced
Large, whole, freshly picked basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil from Italy
In an individual or large dish, create colorful layers of tomato slices (sprinkled with sea salt), mozzarella slices, and basil leaves.
If making in a large plate of Caprese salad for a crowd, have the tomato and mozzarella slices lengthwise once they are assembled and place a piece of mozzarella in the center to create a “flower” pattern, as in the picture above. Decorate with extra basil.
Let sit for about 15 minutes for the tomato juices to develop. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
Serve with Italian bread to mop up the tomato juices and enjoy!
Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see me actively making a Caprese salad that can be shared by two people. Remember, the correct choice of ingredients is the key to this simple “salad. A touch of sea-salt to bring the juices out of the tomatoes that provide the acid for the “vinaigrette” and a drizzle of your favorite extra-virgin olive oil makes an exquisite summertime treat!
— by Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Capresi and Panzanella Salads with Tomatoes and Cucumbers from Your Garden