6 years ago, I met a girl named Emma with a very limited food repertoire. She lived by what she lovingly coined "the beige diet," characterized by items like potatoes, grilled cheese, chicken, crackers, or any food with that suspiciously artificial golden hue to it. This is the girl who cringed at even talk of a vegetable. Took personal offense when my pseudo- vegetarian, incensed college self tried to discuss the injustices of our food system. And maintained a list of personal food "dislikes" that was almost comically lengthy.
This week, that same girl moved to New York City armed with a newly developed love of cooking and an impressive proficiency in dining out that puts even my food-crazed self to shame. I'd like to say that I had something to do with this change of heart, but the truth is that this transformation was entirely self-realized. Long gone are the days of beige and in its place a whole new string of food discoveries, like turmeric! kale! leeks! fish sauce! farro! Just look at the texts...
Out of her seemingly ever growing list of newfound ingredients and dishes, panzanella is the one that automatically makes me think, Emma! Over the course of my three months living in Chicago, nearly every conversation surrounding girl's night dinner plans seemed to begin with "How about a panzanella?" This Italian bread salad has seen a number of reiterations ranging from savory to even sweet and is one of the most versatile and hassle free meals. The process simply involves toasting up some cubed bread (preferably 2-3 days old) in the oven, mixing in any combination of vegetables/cheeses/meats, sprinkling in fresh herbs, and tying it all together with some sort of oil and vinegar duo. A basically no cook dinner that's ideally enjoyed in the dead of August heat.
Since Emma's move fell right in the middle of tomato season, a caprese variation seemed like it would be a fitting homage to summer, to Chicago, to the past 6 years, and to all of the good times to come. New York is lucky to have you, Emma. Buon appetito!
1 loaf of crusty bread (ciabatta, sourdough, focaccia), cubed
2# heirloom tomatoes, cut in large chunks
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, ripped or chopped into hefty pieces
A bunch of basil leaves, roughly chopped
Flaky sea salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place cubed bread on a sheet tray and bake for 15 minutes, shaking the tray every 5 minutes or so to ensure even browning. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. In a large bowl, mix the toasted bread with the tomatoes, mozzarella, & basil. Drizzle with enough olive oil and balsamic vinegar to coat the bread. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings to taste.