Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pirates of the Panzanella

Swashbuckling flavors? Treasure-seeking flavors? Flavors worthy of Johnny Depp playing the lead for them?

I guess not. There seems to be no way to tie the movie in to today’s food. Seemed like a funny, clever title at the time. Maybe good for some product tie-ins and eventual royalty payments.

But not to be. So back to the real world. Todays’ post:

We wanted some bold flavors. Ripe flavors. Summer flavors.

We were willing to put in some effort to create them. But not too much effort. After all, we don’t want to add to the 150 people who have died from the heat in the last two weeks here in California. A realistic fear if you’ve been inside my hot kitchen lately.

We just want to be able to sit back afterwards and make comments about how we pulled off another one, and how we’re glad to take a load off, and how we’re a little tired, but not too tired. Things like that.

Naturally food tastes that much better when you’ve worked a bit for it. The appetite, somewhat lacking in our unusually hot and humid weather, might make a return appearance. You never know.

So we were looking to put in just a bit of effort before sitting back.

And enjoying some bold, ripe summer flavors. Preferably something cool.

There are naturally a lot of choices here. Soups. Salads. But we were looking for something a little different. Something we hadn’t tried in a while.

And while looking around at the various raw materials in the kitchen, especially the day old baguette and the tomatoes, a classic panzanella came to mind.

Basically a tomato and bread salad. With bold basil and garlic flavors. And a hint of fresh summer tarragon and lemon.

And best of all, a cool dish. Served room temperature. A perfect companion for enjoying with a big bold red wine to start the dinner while sitting in the evening breeze.

Tomato Panzanella
Recipe courtesy Michael Chiarello, FoodNetwork

2 pounds ripe roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
1/4 cup minced red onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt, preferably gray salt
Several grinds black pepper
Panzanella Croutons, recipe follows
2 cups trimmed arugula
Wedge Parmesan, for shaving

Drain the tomatoes in a sieve to remove excess liquid while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
In a bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, basil, tarragon, salt, and pepper. Add the croutons and toss well.
Divide tomato mixture among 4 plates. Top each serving with an equal amount of the arugula. With a vegetable peeler, shave the Parmesan over the salad. Serve immediately.
Michael's Notes: I've used basil and tarragon here, but you can use any herbs you like. Parsley and marjoram come to mind as good alternatives.

Panzanella Croutons

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
6 cups crustless cubed day-old bread (1/2-inch cubes)
Sea salt, preferably gray salt, and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and preheat a cookie sheet in it.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and cook until it foams. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the bread cubes and toss to coat with the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the bread to a baking sheet. Immediately sprinkle with the cheese and toss again while warm to melt the cheese.
Bake, stirring once or twice, until the croutons are crisp and lightly colored on the outside but still soft within, about 8 or 9 minutes. Let cool. Store in an airtight container.
Michael's Notes: I use a serrated knife to remove the crust from day-old bread, then switch to a chef's knife to cut the cubes because it doesn't tear the bread. Also note that I recommend grating the Parmesan finely so that it will stick to the bread better.
Yield: about 6 cups

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