Does every Italian know how to make Panzanella?

by admin on May 20, 2009

When I had my lunch in Certaldo, Alicia had asked me if I had ever eaten Panzanella. I knew what it was but I never had the desire to order it. She was shocked…oh you must have Panzanella…it is a very traditional dish….you must have….we went on to talk about the place of Tuscan bread in their cuisine…..unsalted bread that is….a tradition of Tuscany which I’ve discussed before. Alicia talked about her grandmother..and how she ate everything with bread….even that big fruit…it is pink….you eat it…ah watermelon? Yes, she even ate watermelon with bread! Her story of her grandmother was wrapped around the recipe of Panzanella….a recipe that she told me in Italian….and I understood her…which for some reason made it take on even more meaning. Hmm…Panzanella….a simple dish…that I will try to prepare in the style of her grandmother.

Weeks went by and the story of Panzanella faded….until one day…it was time. I walked into Elisabetta’s and told her I was going to make Panzanella! Ah…she said…a very traditional Tuscan dish. It is very simple. But let’s go to the book to see how he does it. This has become our new routine…ever since the ricotta fritto. Elisabetta pulls out the CUISINETOSCANA book and looks for the recipe….we go over it…she translates it…tells me what she does different and then loads my bag with the groceries that I need. This cookbook is worn…tattered cover and simply disheveled…but the pictures are beautiful and the recipes amazing…and it is authored by one of the “best chefs in Tuscany” who owns one of the “best restaurants in Tuscany”. I’m always so focused on what Elisabetta is saying that I don’t ever absorb the chef’s name but I will…because I must get this book….it holds so many memories now.

Elisabetta begins with the emphasis on the bread…it MUST be a traditional bread of Tuscany….senza sale…and it must be old…at least a day old….but again it has to be the Traditional bread only…..and a day old for sure. Capito. You then take the onion…and she loads one in my bag…I grimace inside because my GERD does not do well with onions….but I can’t eliminate it…it’s the tradition….it wouldn’t be authentic….I have to sacrifice my esophagus just this once….and stop by the pharmacy for antacids on my way back. You chop the onion into small pieces….you then do the same with the cetriolo….ah how do you say that in english…the green vegetable…cucumber I say immediately….yes cuu cumber she says. I love the way she pronounces some english words. I really think we should change some of our emphasis on some words as it sounds so much better…cuuuuu cumber with a emphasis on the ber. (You know you just did that outloud!). Then of course, pomodori….lots of chopped pomodori.

You also take basil and add it to the rest….then you take the bread out of the water and you spremere….how you say in english as she is motioning with her hands what looks like a squeeze….squeeze I said and she quickly responds yes a squeeza you squeeza the bread til all of the water is outa…and then you add it to the salad. When is all “prepare ed “(another great word I love to here her say) then you drizzle with olio and sale….of coursa…..and then you put in the cooler (refrigerator:)) …for an hour….it is very important that it goes in the cooler for an hour before you serva.

I have to digress a bit and say I am not making fun of her accent in the least bit….quite the opposite. When I attempt to speak Italian I feel as if I’ve butchered…no slaughtered their beautiful language….when she speaks english, it becomes even more beautiful….how fair is that?

So..I’m excited…a bit worried about the onion but excited. I love that I just heard the recipe from two very local people and it was identical…and it was all about the bread. So, I bid my ciaos et al and off I went…back home…with the usual stop by Christian’s to grab our fresh pasta. As I wait for him to prepare and cut the pasta, I notice the bread sitting on the bench…it must be Thursday. Is that traditional Tuscan bread? I ask. OH YES…he exclaims. Senza sale? I say (like an idiot because everyone knows traditional bread is senza sale). Si..senza sale. All traditional bread is without salt he says…which I knew but I just wanted to make sure that I don’t make any errors in my preparation of Panzanella. Would this be the bread I use for Panzanella? Panzanella?! Si….it is the proper bread…and then he breaks into the his story of Panzanella. I smiled to myself as I knew I was fully prepared…..but still…I listened. It is important the kind of bread that you use….this is right….you take this bread and you must leave it for at least a day…..and then you MUST soak it overnight….overnight? Did Elisabetta say overnight? I couldn’t remember….that adds another day onto the process! So, I buy it today…soak it tomorrow….and then make it on the third day? Bummer…I was really craving it now. I asked Christian again….you soak it over night? He said yes…his mother always would soak it over night….very important. He was involved in food…is Italian…can’t remember what Elisabetta said…and I know Alicia didn’t speak to the time aspect….so I decided to go with it…overnight it will be. The rest of his recipe followed suit with Elisabetta…except the cooler part….he did not say it MUST go in the cooler for an hour. I liked that idea though and trust Elisabetta so I decided to keep that step in the recipe.

I was craving white wine for a change so Christian gave me a bottle of the white wine produced from their organic farm. It had Trebbiano and Chardonnay grapes…mostly Trebbiano….very light and crisp….slightly fruity. You can tell he knows his wine as well. He said the Trebbiano is very typical of Tuscany. That confused me because they make Balsamic Vin out of a Trebbiano varietal…in Modena and Reggio Emilia….yes Balsamic is made out of a white grape.

Christian was startled a bit when I asked him about that as most Italians seem to be when you know anything about their real traditions…and said yes, it is the same varietal…and then told me the story about the evolution of the Trebbiano varietal in Tuscany…as it used to be a big part of Chianti…and that is why they planted it. Then something wiped it out at some point so they didn’t have as much for the Chianti….they realized that the Chianti was heartier and more full bodied without it so they decreased the percentage that went into Chianti and now use it for white wine. Now remember this is all hearsay and it’s been translated to me who is then trying to remember the details to translate it to you….so it you are interested I would suggest that you “google it”.

As I walk to our flat, I have to remember that I am not eating panzanella tonight….I keep getting excited for the flavors and then remember ….oh yea…..it’s TWO days! I get home, unload the groceries and get the same cheers from the crowd….what did you get?…..what are you making for dinner?….are you making Panzanella? I quickly explained that I have to let the bread become stale and then soak it overnight…so we were looking at three dinners from now….the crowd was not pleased. At dinner I told the girls about my journey into Panzanella….I said it amazed me that a young dude….like Christian….would not only know the recipe for Panzanella but be very happy to give his version…..which is of course, is the right way! Emily wasn’t impressed…she said mom, he works in the food industry…of course he knows about food. No…I don’t think so Em….I think everyone knows how to cook in this country…..she dismissed me…as a good 14 year old would.

Fast forward to next day….bread aging in the warm air…..and our new internet router being installed. We finally got internet in our flat so we don’t have to leave our security door open to pirate the other waves. The man who came to install it was very pleasant…..didn’t speak much english….probably my age…..hard worker…..typical of someone who might install your internet cable…..whatever that is. I’m sitting in my familiar chair reading an article from Bene, an American Italian magazine….it is an article about sweaters and asking a bunch of different Italians which sweater they like best and why. It showed pictures of each one in the sweater they chose….kind of lame but actually entertaining….

….the internet man, Antonio, interrupted me…. I looked up and answered….looked back down at the article…..looked back up at the Antonio…..tried to stop myself from potential embarrasment….but couldn’t help myself…..and I asked “sapete come fare panzanella?” Emily looked at me in sheer horror….she could not believe that I just asked the internet repairman how to make Panzanella….she looked right back down at her computer….trying to pretend that she was not present.

Antonio, on the other hand, stopped…..turned around with a gleam in his eye and he said, “Panzanella?!” Si!….suddenly the birds began to sing and the angels began to blow their horns…..and Antonio….began to speak VERY good english. The more he spoke, the more the kids relaxed…and listened…and smiled. Yes..it was all the same….he didn’t require an overnight soak…only several hours….and he did not say to “dress” it. I asked…don’t you put olio e sale on it? He looked at me aghast and said ….but of course….he laughed…and looked at me with disdain…but of course you put olio e sale…he mumbled as he went about his wiring duties.

Antonio would work for a bit and then want to talk about Panzanella…work…Panzanella….at one point he launched into the “history”….he said it originated in Jills….I said Jills….and he said yes…Jills….I said where is Jills? He said you know Jills. I said no….where is it…..he looked at me totally disgusted….Jills you know…..preesons. Emily yells Jails mom Jails……geez mom….what is your problem? You’ve got to love 14. Yes he said that in Jills they only ate bread and water….they decided they needed more so they came up with this dish. I asked, really? I think I had a “yea right” look on my face because he got a bit embarrassed and said…..well I don’t know if that is true but that is what they say….Antonio hooked everything thing up….we bid a fond ciao….now bonded in Panzanella….and went along with our day.

I was now totally inspired to ask every Italian this question…and get a broad spectrum of stories….I will ask as I am inspired. It’s mainly for my own entertainment as I get such joy listening to the locals talk about their culture….the information is so interesting…but I believe that is only a piece of it. It is an effort and a definite challenge to communicate when neither is sure nor secure in the others language….it creates a beautiful exchange no matter what the words hold….and it leaves you feeling as if you have truly connected with someone on a deeper level….not sure why….but if you’ve done it…..you know and if you haven’t….do it…and you will see.

Ah…so here are some pictures….you got the recipe….that’s all it is…..everyone has warned me that people will add things to this but if you want to prepare it in the traditional Tuscan way….you will only include…..drum roll please……onions, cucumber, tomato, basil, and bread….now you probably won’t have access to bread without salt so maybe use a Ciabatta…..leave it over night….then soak it over another night…(actually I checked back with Elisabetta and she was adament about one hour)….but I did it overnight and it was good….and then add it to the chopped ingredients…dress with one of our Napa Valley extra virgin olive oils…because you need that bitterness and heat from those oils….and sea salt…folks…please use sea salt! Leave it in your frig for an hour and then toss a bit and serve.

I have to say that is was amazing! I know why they emphasize the bread…it makes the dish. The onion was so sweet…it was a “torpedo” onion…amazing….and no side effects!! The kids loved it…..just a great spring/summer salad with a bit more substance….and the best part is to remember all of the stories when you are preparing and eating it….share them with your family….friends….and make a memory!!

Wow..this was a long one….I really try to make these stories as concise as possible….it’s hard to do when you are trying to capture and pass on just a tad of what you experience….ouch…my hands hurt….time for pictures!

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The bread squeezing was such a cool feeling that I had each girl take a turn….just like preschool……they loved it!

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The bread was very light and fluffy almost….right after you squeezed it..almost like bread crumbs.

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One cucumber, one onion and a lot of pomodori!

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The infamous “torpedo?” onion. Safe for those suffering from GERD. :)

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With olio d’olivo, sale and an hour of being in the “cooler”!

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Buon Appetito!

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