Greek Panzanella

My sister, Alexandra, has no patience for salads, especially when it comes to salads offered at restaurants (called insalatoni, here in Italy). "No way am I going to spend money on a bowl of lettuce! If I'm spending money, I'm eating something I really want to eat!" (I suppose she does have a point). My brother, Matt, back when he was six years old and trying his first Caesar salad, famously asked "Do I have to eat the leaves?" not quite understanding that the lettuce leaves were the salad. A friend of mine recently ordered a salad at our nearby pizzeria -- she had had pizza already for lunch -- only to end up eyeing the large Margherita pizzas on the rest of the group's plates, slightly regretting her decision. Indeed, at first glance, a bowl of lettuce is rarely as exciting as a dish of pasta, a burger, a steak. 

Having said all this though, I must say that blogging and recipe-reading has taught me that a salad can actually be much more than just a pile of iceberg lettuce. Different types of lettuces, cheeses, dressings, and vegetables can actually transform it into something quite filling, delicious and appealing. Case in point: I've made this watermelon and feta salad, this nectarine salad with prosciutto and arugula, and now this panzanella, a Tuscan dish that traditionally consists of day old bread, tomatoes, and onions. Ok, I know what you're thinking -- panzanella isn't exactly a salad! -- but is, at least in my book. This version in particular is packed with veggies, is served at room temperature, has dressing, and consists of pieces of bread that are sort of like croutons, just better. Today's Greek panzanella is a cross between a Greek salad and your traditional panzanella -- and while I acknowledge that it is nothing that you would ever find this dish in either Italy or Greece, it's really a shame for both countries, because it's fantastic. Though panzanella is a dish created to make use of stale bread, this recipe gives it a makeover, toasting the ciabatta on the stove in lots of olive oil until it transforms into crunchy golden clouds of bread that soak up the flavorful vinaigrette without becoming too soft. And there are other flavorful, colorful guests at the panzanella-party, too -- crisp fresh cucumbers and bell peppers, sweet cherry tomatoes, bitingly sharp onions, briny olives, and salty feta, a mix so good that the whole bowl of this was polished off right away (we all had seconds and thirds)In short, is is exactly the kind of salad my sister and brother would (and do) happily eat. 

A couple of notes: As you can see from the photos, I left the feta out of the panzanella this time around as my lactose intolerant sister-in-law was eating with us -- I can confirm that it is excellent with or without. Panzanella is traditionally eaten as its own dish, but works great as a side dish, too. Finally, I find that toasting the bread on the stove gives it a nice crisp exterior, but feel free to toast the bread in the oven or use day old bread as per tradition.


Ingredients for the panzanella:
6 cups bread, cubed (a loaf of ciabatta bread, French bread, boule,m or any other crusty bread)
1 hothouse cucumber, sliced 
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
1 pint (275 grams) cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 red onion, sliced in half rounds
1/2 pound (224 grams) feta cheese, cut in 1/2-inch cubes (optional)
1/2 cup (65 grams) kalamata olives, pitted

For the vinaigrette:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup good red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the bread cubes and sprinkle with salt; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently, for 5 to 10 minutes, until nicely browned. Add more olive oil as needed. 

Place the cucumber, red pepper, yellow pepper, tomatoes and red onion in a large bowl.

For the vinaigrette, whisk together the garlic, oregano, mustard, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper in a small bowl. While still whisking, add the olive oil and make an emulsion. Pour the vinaigrette over the vegetables. Add the feta, olives and bread cubes and mix together lightly. Set aside for 30 minutes for the flavors to blend. Serve at room temperature. 
Poor Snoopy also wanted some panzanella...!!!

Recipe from Ina Garten.

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