A minimalist panzanella to make grandparents proud

Panzanella, an Italian bread salad, is true peasant food even at its most bejeweled. The spare version below, though less photogenic, is still remarkably satisfying for a conscientious eater reconnecting with her own roots while awaiting the sprouting of those of Spring.

Over the weekend, I invented a brand new expression that you’ve never heard before, and it goes a little something like this: “Time heals all wounds.” So true, right? Do you like it? Mmm, that’s just it – neither do I, really. The thing is, I’m setting out to try to explain how I’ve gotten over something, and then there it is, all up in my face, with its gory implications that maybe I could use a bandage, and did I want it to call 911. Thanks, but that’s a little more raw emotion than I was looking for in my already healed state.

Thankfully, the witty writer Gina Hyams, whom I “know” best as Twitterer @ginahyams, recently found a more artful way of expressing the underlying notion: “Thinking how nice it is that time makes footnotes of even the most difficult relationships and circumstances.”

As a parent of young kids sometimes struggling to relate to their point of view, it can be tempting to look back on childhood as the essence of simplicity, relegating to footnotes the complexities they face. It’s easy to forget the extent to which children have to make accommodations just to interact with a world designed by adults; how every day is a series of negotiations with giant pieces of furniture and menacingly crusty bread. For kids who are lucky enough to know their grandparents, though, at least around here, there is a bit of respite from the constant work of trying to fit. A grandparent’s love is a place where that kind of dirtywork happens behind the scenes, out of view of the star of the show.

When I was young, my own grandfather and I had a perfectly symbiotic relationship in many ways, not least of all where crusty bread was concerned. He loved to stuff his sandwiches with cured meats and juicy tomatoes and would hollow out the crust a bit to hide the occasional extra piece of salami from Grandma. I was a happy accomplice, tucking away the tender white insides while I thought no one was looking. Over the years, while the foundation of our relationship has remained strong, we’ve had to stretch a bit more – sometimes quite a bit more – to see each other clearly through the differing views of our generations.

One of my few real comforts in the current economy (have I mentioned that the crisis is, like, so not cute anymore, by the way?) has been the opportunity – the necessity – to bridge some of the culture gap between our points of view. It’s been worth more than a few extra meatless dinners at home, more than a staycation, more than the passed-up new Spring clothes that I don’t miss anyway since I also didn’t buy the magazines – to have a little more understanding of what it means to make the most of what we have, rather than always wanting more. I know I’m not alone here, either. Long before it was a video feature at the New York Times online, I’ve heard many friends expressing similar feelings about grandparents whom only a handful of us are lucky enough to be able to tell. Maybe because we can’t all say it directly, people have been finding lots of other creative ways to share their thoughts. Foodies, as usual, are no slackers in this regard.

In just one of many great examples, earlier this month the Washington Post blog A Mighty Appetite organized a virtual event called Eating Down the Fridge, where participants were encouraged to abstain from food shopping for a week, instead looking to their freezers, fridges and larders to nourish themselves and their families. (I know, we call them pantries now; but oh, how I – perhaps like our grandparents? – love the word “larder” and sort of stumble over the writing of “pantries.” I much prefer “underwear.”) Although I really identify with the concept, our family didn’t participate, because I really identify with the concept – so much so that we have already been eating that way for much of the year. Between our adventures in canning and freezing, the frigid winter and a newborn baby, I made far fewer trips to the store for fresh ingredients than usual.

Along those lines, hungry for lunch this week, and with nary a fresh vegetable in sight, I did the best I could to channel our grandparents. If I do say so, I think I did pretty well. This minimalist panzanella is packed with flavor and comfort and really makes the best of the little it has.

Minimalist Panzanella

5 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 day-old baguette
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 garlic clove, finely chopped and smashed to a paste with ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar (I used tarragon vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, optional

Cut the bread into bite-size cubes. Heat two tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat in a wide pan. Add the bread cubes and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt. Cook, tossing frequently, until the bread is golden in spots, reducing the heat as necessary to prevent burning.

Meanwhile, make the dressing: In a large bowl, combine the garlic/salt paste, vinegar, and some freshly ground pepper. Whisk in the remaining 3 Tablespoons olive oil in a slow stream. Add the chickpeas and toss to coat. When the bread cubes are golden, add them as well, along with the lemon zest, if using, and toss.

This salad, while spare, is surprisingly delicious as is, but would only be improved by the addition of chopped fresh vegetables and herbs, a can of tuna, or a few sneaky cubes of dried salami. Tomato and basil are traditional, but the possibilities are virtually limitless.

  • Jill

    how DELISH does that sound… and seems like another fairly easy recipe that I might actually try…
    (by the way… our pancakes were yummy… not as gorgeous and fluffy as yours, LOL… and more on the stove than in my belly, but yummy nonetheless!)…ReplyCancel

  • I love the addition of chickpeas! Nice shot.ReplyCancel

  • Daphne

    We served panzanella at our wedding! – a summer wedding with tomatoes….I will try this version – chickpeas make it sound so well rounded! What did Addie think?ReplyCancel

  • Jill, you could most definitely pull this one off! It’s been vegetarian central around here recently, right?

    Rita, thanks. Chickpeas are becoming my new best friend – I love that they can turn anything into a meal for about fifty cents.

    Daphne, I love it. What a nice, grounded dish to start a life with. Addie liked it well enough but said it was “spicy” because of the raw garlic. If you think that would be an issue for Sam (or, you know, your neighbors or whatever), you could easily saute the garlic a little in the olive oil before cooking the bread, and before making the garlic/salt paste (just crush the clove a bit first). I love the punch of raw garlic once in a while, but I know not everybody does!ReplyCancel

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