Have you ever had panzanella? When I was studying abroad in Florence during college, we would eat a delicious salad of juicy tomatoes, fresh basil, sharp vinaigrette and cubes of bread. The bread really makes the salad—and you can (and should!) use old stale bread, since it softens up in the tomato juice. Happily, Laura from The First Mess agreed to share the best recipe ever…

The Best Panzanella You’ll Ever Have
By Laura Wright of The First Mess

I’ve always loved to eat healthy, but not in an outright way. Celebrating produce in season, the practice of cooking itself, gathering around a meal with people you like—these are the important and perhaps subtle ways of healthy living to me. I’ve attended culinary school, worked in a bunch of restaurants and studied nutrition, but I always come back to those three core ideas because they’re within everyone’s reach. I love this dish because it fits into those notions of seasonality, intuitive cooking and gathering ’round.

I eat a lot of salads, but classic panzanella is my absolute favorite. I make it all through the warm months. Juicy summer tomatoes, sharp vinaigrette, tons of fresh basil, and little toasted cubes of crunchy bread, only slightly softened by all that luscious tomato juice…too good. I dream of its rustic ripeness all winter long.

The dish itself represents the kind of food that I love to make and the underlying philosophy that drives it. Sure, the bread is stale, but it’s brilliantly reinvented here while the deep red tomatoes and fragrant basil, literally springing out of every corner in the garden, find their happy ending too. Tear up some crusts of bread, walk through your garden, one healthy pour of olive oil and you’re almost there. It’s a simple, crowd-pleasing recipe you can tuck into your back pocket all summer long.

Recipe: Classic Summer Panzanella
Serves 6-8

For the croutons:
4 cups cubed bread (about ½ inch cubes)
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

For the salad:
5 cups halved cherry tomatoes (about 2 to 3 pints)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, peeled and finely diced (or ¼ cup fine diced red onion)
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves (from 4 to 5 sprigs)

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Place the bread cubes on a large, parchment lined baking sheet. Drizzle bread cubes with the 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Lightly toss bread cubes to coat in the oil and seasoning.

Place coated bread cubes in the oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until croutons are golden brown and crunchy. Remove and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the cut tomatoes, red wine vinegar, olive oil, diced shallots, garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine. Allow this mixture to sit for at least 10 minutes. The longer it sits, the juicier the tomatoes will be.

Toss the croutons with the dressed tomatoes in the large bowl. Allow this mixture to sit for about 15 minutes, stirring it up here and there to distribute the dressing. Transfer the tomatoes and croutons to your serving bowl. Roughly chop or tear the basil leaves and scatter them on top of the panzanella and garnish with a whole sprig of basil if you like.

Wouldn’t this make a great go-to lunch? Thank you so much, Laura!

P.S. More best recipes, including tomato soup and chocolate chunk cookies.

(Photos by Laura from The First Mess! Thanks to Shoko for helping with this series.)