Stale Bread Makeover

All last week, a stale baguette sat on the kitchen counter. Rather than feed it to the birds, I wrapped the hard-as-a-rock loaf in a plastic bag and channeled my culinary muse.

What about bread crumbs?
Nah, got plenty on hand.
Bread pudding?
Hmm, sounds tempting, I mean, who doesn't love bread pudding...but what about something a bit kinder to the waistline? Besides, I'd like something seasonal...

Stale bread gets makeover with tomatoes, cukes and herbs.(Kim O'Donnel)

And then it occurred to me -- there was all kinds of conversation in last week's vegetarian chat about bread salads -- panzanella, fattoush and the like -- and vine-ripe tomatoes just happen to be showing up at farmer's markets.

Stale bread cubes and juicy tomatoes are a perfect match; the tomatoes gently coax the bread back to an edible toothiness and as the bread softens, it acts like a sponge, absorbing the sweet tomato-y flavors and any accompanying seasonings. It's culinary symbiosis at its best.

It's hard to figure out how "panzanella" got its name - the "pan" part comes from the Spanish "pan" or the Italian "pane" but the "zanella" ending is a little trickier. One source argues that "zanella" means soup tureen, but a quick pick in the Italian dictionary reveals that "zuppiera" is a closer match.

The links to soup, however, may not be far fetched; "The Oxford Companion to Food" reports that "the likely derivation of the name, seems to imply that it too began life as a bread-thickened soup" -- perhaps as a version of gazpacho that traveled from neighboring Spain.

In Italy, panzanella will show up on menus in Tuscany as well as in the neighboring regions of Umbria or Le Marche. Because tomatoes were not planted in Italy until the 16th century, it's likely that the first versions of panzanella were free of pomodori.

But that brings me to an important point: In addition to the tomatoes, several other flavoring components make their way into a panzanella, seasoning the bread and making a zesty salad. The herbs of summer -- basil, parsley and mint -- are appropriately aromatic and leafy choices, as is a member of the onion family, for a little piquancy. Cucumber is typically the secondary veg/fruit item, and a basic vinaigrette ties everything together.

I've been known to add garlic as well as celery to my panzanella, considered untraditional, but I love the resulting zing and crunch with these additions.

Which brings me to another point -- Play improvisationally with this salad. Use what you have on hand, and don't sweat the details. All you need to know is that you're seasoning and softening stale bread, without turning it into bread mush. Otherwise, you're free to play.

Below, details from a recipe scribbled in one of my many recipe notebooks, dated July, 1994, during my pre-culinary school kitchen tinkering days. It was tasty then and still hits the spot -- and it's even better the next day!

Share your favorite ways of using stale bread in the comments area below. Recipe below the jump.

Tomato-Herb Bread Salad


About 1 cup torn stale bread, crusts removed. Unsliced, thick loaves are ideal.
About 5 large tomatoes (alternatively, 12-15 small, grape or sun gold tomatoes, halved or 6-8 plum tomatoes, quartered)
1/2 large cucumber, peeled and diced or thinly sliced
6-8 scallions, roots removed, thinly sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
4-6 celery stalks, diced (one thinly sliced fennel would be a nice alternative)
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup basil leaves, shredded
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup torn fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine or balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste -- at least one teaspoon

In a mixing bowl, combine bread cubes with tomatoes. You may dice large tomatoes or you may do the following: Slice tomatoes in half, sprinkle with salt and rest for 10-15 minutes. Squeeze tomat water on top of bread, then chop tomatoes.

Add cucumber, scallions, garlic, celery, lemon zest and herbs, and stir to combine.

In a smaller bowl, mix olive oil and vinegar with a fork. Pour over salad and stir until well coated. Taste for salt and add accordingly.

Serve at room temperature.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 30, 2007; 10:52 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Summer , Vegetarian/Vegan
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I love love love panzanella. It takes over for dinner during the summer months once tomatoes are here.

I do like to toast the bread, then rub the toasted side with a clove of garlic to give it a not too strong garlic flavor.

Posted by: Jin | July 30, 2007 12:51 PM

Ooh, sounds great. Question, how long will it hold up? Can I make it for dinner and take leftovers for lunch? Or will it be a mushy mess by then? Thanks!

Posted by: Liz | July 30, 2007 1:54 PM

Hey Liz, Depends on how wet you make your cubes on the first night. If they're softer rather than wetter, I'd say they'll hold up next day. In fact, I just checked my leftovers from last night and they're still good to go.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 30, 2007 2:04 PM

The key to the best panzanella, other than fantastic fresh mozzarella, is to use champagne vinegar for the dressing. It's amazing!!

Posted by: Tomato-land, VA | July 30, 2007 2:40 PM

Thanks for the memories. My mom used to make it for me when I was a kid. I can remember the first time I had it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday afternoon. Only it wasn't as fancy as your recipe - just the tomato, olive oil, salt and a little oregano. I just got off the phone with her to ask her what she called it. She used a term in Barese dialect that in no way resembles panzanella, and I won't even attempt to spell it out.

Posted by: Paolo | July 30, 2007 2:52 PM

Great idea.
Other suggestions for stale bread:
-drip water on the loaf and toast (steams it nicely)
-French toast

Posted by: Thriftmaster | July 31, 2007 6:49 PM

The correct plural form of "pomodoro" is "pomodori" and not pomodoros.

Posted by: ET | July 31, 2007 7:24 PM

ET: Thank you for the eye. I always confuse my Spanish and Italian.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 31, 2007 7:28 PM

At least in my area, "panzana" is a term used to indicate a story not to be taken seriously, such as a tall tale. I always thought that the name "panzanella" was due to the fact that the dish is just thrown together, not a very serious attempt at fancy cooking.

Posted by: Emilia | August 9, 2007 3:45 PM

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