If you came into my house right now, you would find homemade cookies in the cookie jar, homemade ice cream in the freezer (and some non-homemade flavors), about ten different kinds of baking chocolate, half of a homemade ginger pound cake, half a homemade chocolate pound cake, and remnants of Easter candy. Some people might wonder how I can live with all of these things surrounding me and not eat them. The reason is because I am a savory person. Not that I don’t like sweet, believe me, the chocolate tempts me sometimes. But it is not all that difficult for me to ignore the fact that I have a mini bakery going on in my house. My problem area is the shelf that houses the chips, pretzels, crackers, and don’t even get me started on popcorn.
Something I truly can not stop eating is homemade croutons. Therefore I do not make them all that often and when I do, I double the amount I need so that there will be some left, you know, for the dish they were intended. I have always baked my croutons in the oven. And they have always been great. What is better than great? Awesome? Stupendous? When you cook them in a pan on the stove, croutons become stupendous.
Homemade croutons figure very prominently in Panzanella, the Italian bread salad. It is a very simple dish with few ingredients. It is the epitome of rustic Italian food. Take the very best quality things and put them together in a simple and beautiful way. I’ve made many Panzanella recipes in my cooking life but have either made more complicated versions (see this Heirloom Tomato Salad and Panzanella with Artichokes, Olives, and Manchego) or I have half heartedly thrown halved (pretty flavorless) cherry tomatoes, those mini balls of mozzarella, a few basil leaves, and croutons in a bowl. It sad to me now that I could have been so overambitious or so careless with something that can be so simple to make and so incredibly tasty.
You know what they say about pizza, right? Even when it is bad it is still good. I’ve eaten plenty of Panzanella in addition to the ones I have made and I always like it. A few weeks ago, when I went to a lunch party thrown by Jennie to celebrate her new book, Homemade with Love, I got to taste the Panzanella that helped me see the light. Jennie did all the cooking for the party and I was delighted to see that everything was vegetarian. I took a bit of everything on my plate with an extra healthy helping of her Panzanella. All the food was beautifully presented and incredibly tasty, no small feat when you are cooking out of a hotel room kitchen, but this salad stole the show for me. What had always been really just an excuse for me to eat dressing soaked croutons has become a thing of beauty where each ingredient shines and together there is magic. Cherry tomatoes are better than romas but slow-roasted cherry tomatoes are glouriously sweet and jammy. Any crouton is a good crouton, as I think I have made clear, but tossing them with just a bit of Parmesan and parsley and then cooking them in a pan on the stove, gave them charming browned bits and that perfect texture of crunch but with a little squish. (Technical terms.) It became clear that this would become my Panzanella forever more.
I have now made this several times and I have just a few tips. I like using a loaf of bread with a dense crumb. Too many air pockets means croutons that are too crispy and potentially burned in spots. I have had luck with Pugliese bread. I cut off each end and then shave a bit of the crustiest parts off. More or less equal sized pieces are my preference and I like them big. As much as I am absolutely smitten with the stovetop method, the second time I made the salad I had a lot going on in the kitchen and didn’t feel like I could successfully manage to keep turning the croutons in the manner they deserved. So I put them in a 375º oven and they were great. Not stupendous, but still great. Because there are so few ingredients here, do use the very best. Be sure to grate your own Parmesan for the croutons and buy a really good fresh mozzarella, preferably an Italian one made with buffalo milk.
Two Years Ago: No Knead Olive Bread
Three Years Ago: Spicy Peanut Noodles, Pull-Apart Cheesy Onion Bread (sooooo good)
Four Years Ago: Greek Pasta Casserole, Green Bean and Fennel Salad
Slow-Roasted Tomato & Fresh Mozzarella Panzanella
Homemade with Love
Please note, this recipe as written serves only 2. Both times I have made it, I have scaled it up by using a the whole pint of cherry tomatoes, more croutons, and about 8 ounces of mozzarella.
1½ tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. honey
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups Parmesan Skillet Croutons (recipe follows)
3 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed
½ cup Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (recipe follows)
Handful fresh basil leaves, torn
To make the dressing, whisk the oil, vinegar, honey, salt, and pepper together in a deep bowl. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Add the croutons, mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil to the bowl, tossing well to combine. Let the salad sit for at least 5 minutes so the croutons can absorb the flavors, but mo more then 15 minutes or they will get too soggy and lose their crunch. To serve, spoon the salad onto a platter or individual plates.
Parmesan Skillet Croutons
Makes 2 cups
2 cups cubed day-old bread
1 tsp. finely chopped parsley
2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl until the bread cubes are well coated
Heat an 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the seasoned bread cubes to the pan and cook, turning occasionally, until golden all over, 5 to 7 minutes. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 sprigs fresh lemon thyme, copped
Preheat the oven to 250ºF. Add all the ingredients to an 8-inch square baking dish and toss well to coat. Adjust seasonings to taste. Bake until the tomatoes are slightly collapsed and tender, about 1 hour. Let cool completely, and store in a tightly covered mason jar or container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.