An informal survey of Portland’s home gardens this summer proves a near miracle has occurred: tomatoes are doing well! Usually even expert backyard gardeners in our region admit to having troubles with tomatoes, because they (the tomatoes) need extensive, hot sun. But this year, we’ve had 51 straight days without rain plus stretches of 90-plus temperatures.
The tomato gods have smiled upon us, and even my humble backyard pots have produced ripe, plump tomatoes! So, bring on the no-cook tomato salad recipes, especially the panzanella, an Italian favorite.
Tomatoes, though thoroughly associated with Italy, are actually native to South America, probably originating in the Peruvian Andes. The fruit that acts like a vegetable didn’t show up in Italy until after the Spanish did some exploring out west and then sailed back to Europe. The Italians took to what the Aztecs and others had been cultivating since at least 500 BC, and dubbed it “pomi d’oro,” or “golden apple.”
Panzanella is a traditional Italian way to use the remnants of crusty bread, though the first such thrifty bread salads were pre-tomato era, and thus depended on onion, cucumber and other vegetables tossed with olive oil and vinegar to revive the stale bread. Tomatoes do an even better job, though, with their flavorful juices. Heirloom tomatoes this time of year are the best.
Of course, with terrific tomatoes, a simple drizzle of quality olive oil and vinegar, sprinkle of sea salt and a turn or two of the pepper grinder equal a salad. But if you do want to go all in and make something even more substantial, try this classic, unfussy panzanella recipe from Carlucci's in Chicago.
Carlucci’s panzanella (Italian bread and tomato salad) from Chef Kevin Provenzano
4 cups bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (day-old crusty Italian or French bread works best)
About 1-1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/3 cup chopped black olives
10 large basil leaves, stacked and sliced thin
1-1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for topping
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Toss everything in a bowl and let marinate at room temperature for at least 1 hour. When ready to serve, toss lightly and check the seasoning. Divide into 6 bowls and drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil on top. 6 servings.