Panzanella Salad

Last Saturday was my dad’s 62nd birthday. Some of you may know my dad, whose longtime Fayetteville tenure, comical quirks and eccentricities have made him somewhat of a Fayetteville celebrity. He’s been everything from a mailman to an archaeologist to a cartoonist, and spouts famous Tuckerisms like, “never wake a sleeping anything” and “lowered expectations mean a happier life for you,” which are heeded and repeated by friends and family (like yours truly). He has the loudest, most infectious guffaw you will ever hear, he has a special place in his heart for dumpster diving, and he makes a mean cinnamon toast.

Every year on his birthday, he wants the same thing: “a steak that breaks the don’t-eat-anything-bigger-than-your-head rule” (which is yet another Tuckerism). Steak has always been dad’s default special meal. If it’s on the menu, he orders it at any restaurant – and I mean ANY restaurant, whether it’s Waffle House or Bordino’s. He’s even gained the moniker “T-Bone Tucker” from family friends.

Rustic White, Little Bread Co.

But this post isn’t about steak (much to many’s dismay, I’m guessing). It’s about a salad that Mom made alongside dad’s birthday ribeye. Mom had acquired a panzanella-esque recipe from a friend, who acquired it from “one of those checkout counter food magazines.” The salad was good – toasted baguette, tomatoes, basil and goat cheese – but something told me I could make a few tweaks – and make it just a little better.

Sunday morning I set out early to Little Bread Company for a loaf of bread. I was among several other bleary-eyed patrons, but luckily I was early enough to dodge the brunch rush. I grabbed my loaf of rustic white, and with ironclad self-control I avoided the obscenely humongous pecan sticky buns starring at me through the pastry case. “Not THIS time, you evil buns, you!” I cried. OK, I didn’t. But I thought it.

Later in the day, I got to work on the salad. I started by cubing half of my loaf of bread (I’ve got the other half in the freezer, waiting to be turned into a Sunday morning French toast). Into a frying pan the bread went with a liberal drizzle of olive oil. I kept a close eye on the cubes as they began to brown, turning them and arranging them as necessary to avoid burning them. Don’t get distracted, here – stay glued to the stovetop and tend to them carefully! Five minutes after Real Housewives sucks you in, you’ll be wondering, “What in the world is that burning smell, and why is my frying pan spewing flames?”

Extra Ingredients

After a quick chop to some fresh, summery veggies like cherry tomatoes and cucumber, and a good handful of basil, I got to work on the super-easy vinaigrette. Three main ingredients in this dressing – olive oil, vinegar and garlic – make it quick, delish and a no-brainer. I tossed the veggies with the dressing, and just before dinner, I tossed in the beautiful fried bread. You’ll want to wait until the last possible second, here – the bread gets soggy quick, and no one wants a soggy salad. A few plugs of goat cheese on top and the salad was good to go.

I have to say, this salad was an amped-up version of mom’s salad from the night before. Sorry, mom, but it’s true! Frying the bread gave its flavor more depth and toastiness, the cucumber was cool and refreshing and the briny olives and capers added a salty bite. This is a great spring and summertime salad; think about adding grilled chicken or even grilled salmon for a light, tasty meal on its own. Enjoy!

Panzanella Salad

1/2 loaf crusty bread, cubed into 1″ pieces
3 garlic cloves, cracked
1/4 c. olive oil
1 c. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 c. cucumber, seeded and diced
1/4 c. kalamata olives, chopped
2 Tbs. capers, rinsed
1/4 c. fresh basil, chopped
4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled

For the Dressing:
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper to taste

In a large frying pan, heat the 1/4 c. of olive oil over medium heat. Add the cracked garlic cloves and the bread cubes. Keep an eye on the bread as it begins to brown, turning them as necessary until they’re evenly golden brown. Remove the bread from the pan and cool it on a wire rack.

Combine the tomatoes, cucumber, olives, capers and basil in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl (or in a jar with a tight fitting lid), combine the dressing ingredients, whisking or shaking vigorously to combine. Toss the vegetables with the dressing and just before serving the salad, toss in the fried bread. Top with crumbled goat cheese and serve immediately.

* If the above slide show doesn’t load, check out the entire set on our Flickr page.

Laura Hobbs is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more of Laura’s contributions, see her author page or visit Flyer Foodie on Facebook.