Most of the year Panzanella isn’t even on my radar. Then, just about this time every summer, I pick up a tomato and with one whiff I find myself thinking about this classic Italian stale bread salad. It’s a salad that somehow seems too simple to be as good as it always is. As with many peasant dishes born of necessity, there seem to be endless variations on Panzanella. Afterall, it’s not much more than chunks of day-old bread and juicy summer tomatoes tossed with whatever veggies you have on hand. Red onions, cucumbers, and bell peppers are popular choices, but there’s nothing stopping you from adding any of the other goodies from your farmers market haul. I came home with purslane in my bag this week so I made a Purslane Panzanella Salad.
Despite its simplicity, a Purslane Panzanella is more than just another tomato salad with croutons. Good Italian bread is important. Ciabatta will do in a pinch but unsalted Tuscan pane sciocco is traditional. Whatever you choose it must be stale. Don’t waste your time trying to make it with fresh bread – it will just disintegrate. The secret is to let the bread and juicy tomatoes sit long enough so that the hard bread becomes chewy. This is what transforms this simple salad into a bona fide cannot-stop-eating-it summertime sensation.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) also known as Verdolaga, Pigweed, Little Hogweed or (my favorite) Pusley, is a succulent plant that is found most commonly in Mexican, Greek, and Middle Eastern cooking. It sounds exotic but actually, it’s a weed and it grows rampantly in Los Angeles’ Mediterranean climate. I could easily pick some on my daily walks to throw is seasonal salads, but I don’t. I’m too afraid of dog pee I guess. Fortunately, it’s readily available at the Hollywood Farmers Market. It gets very little attention as far as I have noticed. In fact, I have walked past bunches of it every Sunday for years without looking twice. But this week I was looking for an unusual ingredient to toss into this salad and Purslane Panzanella Salad seemed just the answer. GREG
PS I swear I didn’t know this before I “dreamed up” a Purslane Panzanella Salad, but soon after I made it I found this quote from a 16th-century Italian text about Panzanella. In it the Florentine painter and poet Bronzino says:
“Un’insalata di Cipolla trita
Con la porcellanetta e cetriuoli
Vince ogn’altro piacer di questa vita.”
That is: “A [bread] salad made with chopped onions, purslane, and cucumbers surpasses all other pleasures in this life.”