Tomato salad tradition

NOTE: This originally appeared as a note on my FB page on August 21, 2009.

A fixture on our summer dinner table was the “Italian” tomato salad.  At its simplest, slices of perfectly ripe Jersey tomatoes and thin ribbons of sliced onion were dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. 

Variations might include some diced hot pepper (I come from a long line of hot pepper lovers), the addition of minced garlic, and/or fresh herbs.  One of my aunts would even scramble the tomatoes, onions and hot pepper version with some eggs to add onto hamburgers, hot dogs, pork roll or sausage sandwiches at cookouts.

No matter how prepared, it was hard to escape the presence of tomato salad all summer long.  And who would want to?

Those gorgeous, thick slices of tangy tomato paired with pungent onions, simply seasoned and doused with oil and vinegar.  What else could you ask for?

Well, bread (and butter) for one.

When the salad was gone, it wasn’t unheard of to take a slice of good bread, slather it with butter and use it to sop up the mixture of dressing and tomato juices left behind on the platter.  And if the meal happened to take place at my grandmother’s house, there might be the end of a loaf of pumpernickel bread available for use in sucking up the oil and vinegar mixture (my grandmother was Jewish, but had married into an Italian family so there was always this wonderful mix of foods and culture at her house but we‘ll have more on that at a later date)

If, as was often the case, corn on the cob was also on the menu that night, it provided another “bonus” to those of us longing to sop up the salad juices.  Most of the time we would use a buttered slice of bread wrapped around the ear of corn to butter the kernels.  Passed around the table over the course of the meal, the slice of bread would be nearly saturated in melted butter.  To gain ownership of that bread and be able to use it for sopping up the tomato salad dressing was a double score.

I always thought this bread and tomato salad pairing was just something that my family did.  As my interest in food and cooking grew, I learned of a traditional Italian dish known as “panzanella.”

According to Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook this salad was a staple of the poor in Tuscany and Rome.  Panzanella was a way to use up stale bread and the vegetables at hand to make a filling dish. Click here for recipe

What is “panzanella?” Think of a salad of chopped tomatoes, sweet pepper, cucumber and onion reinforced with cubes of stale bread to soak up the juices; an inverted bruschetta were the bread is broken up and tossed into the chopped tomato and garlic topping.

It’s a wonderfully refreshing starter, salad or lite lunch utilizing local produce at it’s seasonal best.

Guess our family’s habit of applying bread slices as a means to get the very last of the tomato salad goodness was just a modern twist on a traditional Italian favorite.

An artfully refreshing lunch: Panzanella salad and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Gallery, Bordentown, NJ

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