October 23, 2011

La Bella Italia: Panzanella Salad from la cucina povera

Always the freshest produce at the Italian market

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

Born to Italian immigrants, I saw this first hand growing up. We reused and recycled long before it was fashionable; everything was saved and nothing went to waste. Nowhere was that more apparent than around food. The parmigiano rind went into the soup, adding depth and richness of flavour. Drippings were carefully strained and preserved. Coffee grinds and egg shells made a rich compost, the better to grow our tomatoes, zucchini and peppers.

That is also how the most delicious of Italian dishes have been born. La cucina povera – literally the poor kitchen – is represented by those dishes where a little had to go a long way, a piece of meat was precious, scarce and longed for, and nothing ever went to waste. Pappa al pomodoro – bread and tomato soup. Risi e bisi – rice and beans. Acquacotta – literally “cooked water” soup, into which all of the day’s scraps were combined to make a warming (and delicious) broth.

Rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eye can see at Fattoria di Montalbano

The view at breakfast - an idyllic spot to start the day

We began our recent two week Italian holiday in an agriturismo just south of Florence – Fattoria di Montalbano. We had rented Il Trebbiali, a six bedroom villa on the grounds of the Nustrini farm. Charming, comfortable and with a big homey Tuscan kitchen, I had visions of cooking up a storm of Italian delicacies. As it happened, dinner was more often than not a gorgeous plate of salume and cheese, accompanied by delicious Chianti.

Enjoying a sundowner at Il Trebbiali

On our last night at Il Trebbiali, we planned to use the last of what was in the fridge. And so it was that I experienced firsthand la cucina povera. Upon inspection, there wasn’t much left, but I knew what was there would be great. I’d assemble a plate of the remaining finocchiona, prosciutto and pecorino; the fresh sausages we bought at the local marcelleria would be grilled, and we’d finish with perhaps my favourite of the cucina povera repertoire: panzanella – a tomato, bread and cucumber salad that humbly combines a handful of ingredients into a splendid dish.

Panzanella Salad
serves four comfortably, and two greedily

A half a loaf or more of good quality day old Italian bread. The bread must be old; this is not the time to use a fresh loaf
Olive oil
One garlic clove, cut in half
6-8 really ripe but firm tomatoes. Forget the hard tasteless fruits of winter and greenhouses
1 English cucumber
4-6 leaves fresh basil, torn
More olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Slice the bread into thick pieces. Rub the cut clove over one side and generously brush both sides of the bread with olive oil. Grill the bread over a charcoal grill, turning the pieces until both sides are browned and toasted. Set bread aside to cool.

2. Roughly chop the tomatoes and put them in a large serving bowl. Some recipes for panzanella call for the tomatoes to be peeled and seeded; I say - this is a rustic salad. La mamma would have dispensed with such niceties when trying to feed a hungry family.

3. Trim the cucumber and chop into bite sized pieces. Add to the tomatoes. Add the basil.

4. Cut the bread into large crouton-style cubes. Add to the tomatoes and toss all three ingredients until well combined.

5. Add a generous amount of olive oil (at least 2 tbsp) and salt and pepper to taste. Toss, taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

The salad can be made ahead, enough so that the juices develop and the bread absorbs some of the tomato flavour but not so much that you have soggy bread.  If you are making ahead, add the basil just before serving and give a final toss to combine ingredients.

Serve at the end of a Tuscan meal, preferably during sunset, and finish with a delightful bottle of Chianti.

Buon appetito!