Saturday, August 20, 2016

Almost Heaven – Back in the Farmers’ Market
What’s cooking? Panzanella Salad with Mozzarella

It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t spent a single post on farmers’ markets, and the summer is very nearly gone! So if you haven’t been to a farmers’ market lately, what are you waiting for? They’re everywhere these days, and they have the most amazing variety of foods. Over the years, I’ve been to markets in Austin (where there are at least three I can think of); San Antonio; Wolfboro, New Hampshire; Nashville; and several in Jersey City, where there’s one every day of the week but Tuesday. If you can’t find a farmers’ market, try taking a ride in the country and stopping at a farm stand. You won’t be sorry.

The range of foods is well beyond what most people imagine. My favorite market – in Summit, NJ – offers the standard assortment of greens and root veggies and fruits, but also pickles and baked goods, fresh mozzarella and aged cheeses, honey, wild mushrooms, and the best fresh fish you’ve ever had. And before you leave, grab a freshly baked pizza for lunch. I’m such a fanatic for the place that I schedule travel so that I’m back in New Jersey for Sunday mornings. The atmosphere is always friendly – farmers being friendly sorts – and all five senses get a workout, what with the sight and feel of the foods on offer, the tasting samples at various stands, and the sounds of local musicians who show up.

So it’s not a surprise that I often have to make a list of what I’ve brought home, because once those fruits and veggies disappear inside the fridge, I lose complete track of what I’ve got. I made a particularly mighty haul a couple of weeks ago, when friends from Texas came for a visit. For their dinner one night, we had a farmers’ market extravaganza: fresh tuna from the fishmonger, a fabulous tomato salad, and for dessert, peach frozen yogurt. What a great way to celebrate summer!

The salad was one I’d been dreaming about while I waited for the field-ripened beefsteak tomatoes – a New Jersey specialty – to show up. Panzanella salad – featuring fresh tomatoes and toasted croutons – is a Tuscan tradition that goes back at least to the 14th century, when it became popular as a way to use up stale bread. In that time prior to the discovery of the New World (i.e., before tomatoes made their way to Europe), they used onions as the basis of the dish; today’s panzanella is much more appealing.

The key to a great panzanella is to start with the ripest, juiciest tomatoes you can find. It’s a hearty salad, so it doesn’t need much more than a simply prepared bit of protein, like a broiled steak or fish. Or you can have it all by itself for lunch. Just let it sit long enough for the bread to really soak up the tomato juices. And it’s equally good with Parmigiano-Reggiano or feta as with mozzarella. As it happens, though, I can get a good, fresh ball of mozzarella... at the farmers’ market!

Panzarella Salad with Mozarella

Adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times.

Serves 4.

6-7 ounces baguette (or ciabatta bread), preferably slightly stale, cut into ¾-inch cubes
6 tablespoons olive oil, separated
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus a pinch
2-3 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes (about 1½ pounds)
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut or torn into bite-sized pieces
½ cup thinly sliced red onion
2 large garlic cloves, mashed or grated into a paste, or 2 teaspoons garlic purée*
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano/thyme)
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or large pinch of red pepper flakes
Black pepper to taste
½ cup English cucumber (a.k.a. Kirby cucumber or Persian cucumber), in ½-inch cubes
½ cup basil leaves, ribboned
¼ cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained

Preheat oven to 425º. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt, and spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes, stirring once, until the cubes are toasted golden. Set aside.

Chop the tomatoes into ¾-inch cubes and place in a large salad bowl, along with the mozzarella. Soak the red onion in a small bowl of warm water for 5 minutes, then drain and add to tomatoes.

In a small bowl or jar, combine the red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, oregano/thyme, Aleppo/red pepper flakes, the ½ teaspoon kosher salt, and a few fresh grinds of black pepper. Whisk in the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and add the dressing to the tomato mixture.

Add the bread cubes, cucumber, basil, parsley, and capers to the tomato mixture and toss well to combine. Let the salad sit for at least 30 minutes – and as long as a couple of hours – before serving. Adjust salt/pepper to taste.

*Kitchen Goddess note: As you know, the Goddess likes to have a ready supply of roasted garlic, and she recently has begun putting some of that into a food processor and puréeing it with a tiny bit of olive oil. Store it in the fridge, and use it in salad dressings, on crostini, or anywhere else you might use finely chopped garlic.

Give a Nod to Nero

The Kitchen Goddess loves to fiddle with her food, and this salad is a great vehicle for adding or substituting ingredients. Sometimes it’s because she’s run out of something, sometimes it’s a more whimsical move. In its most recent incarnation, her panzanella deliciously included the following alterations:

■ Substitute feta cheese for mozzarella.
■ Add 2 ripe peaches, cut into bite-size pieces.
■ Substitute mint for basil.
■ Instead of the cucumber, cut a medium-sized zucchini into ½-inch cubes, toss with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and broil 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
■ Substitute 2 cups torn arugula for the parsley.
■ Eliminate the capers.

 Be brave, folks – it’s only food.

To Go with Your Panzanella

If you’re wondering how I cooked that tuna, here’s the link: Bacon-wrapped Tuna Steaks with Sesame Sauce.

And here’s the link for dessert: Peach Frozen Yogurt.


  1. Lee, this sounds great. Maybe I'll head to a Farmer's Market in San Antonio and purchase the ingredients.