It’s almost time to say goodbye to homegrown tomatoes.

It was a generous season, with loads of rosy globes crowding my kitchen counter waiting to become salads, sauces, gazpacho, a tangy foil for okra and corn or carved and layered between bread for the ultimate summer sandwich.

I’m looking at a few stragglers right now, and I know just what I will do with them on this hot and humid day. Panzanella salad is a wonderful way to use two kitchen dwellers that have overstayed their welcome a tad: overripe tomatoes and stale bread. It’s a match made in summertime heaven and couldn’t be simpler to make.

Don’t worry that your tomatoes are too soft and juicy to use raw or that your loaf of Italian or French bread is too dry to be palatable. The luscious juices from the tomatoes will rehydrate the cubes of dried bread and infuse them with beautiful flavor. It’s a rustic Tuscan recipe that, like many Italian dishes, is simple and hearty.

Born in the summer fields of Tuscany, panzanella nourished farmers who rose in the dark hours to tend their crops. Come sun-up, they’d collect a basket of tomatoes, onion, cucumber and basil and bring it back to their farmhouses. The wives would wash, chop and combine the vegetables with cubes of stale bread to make a satisfying breakfast for their husbands. If the tomatoes did not provide enough juice, the bread could be moistened first with a brief soak in cool water.

Ready to make a delicious Panzanella salad?

There’s nothing to it, really. You’ll need dry bread of good quality – about half of an Italian or French loaf. Don’t use the soft stuff; you need crusty, artisan-style bread for this recipe. If you don’t have stale bread, you can make some. Simply cube your fresh bread and toast on a baking sheet in a 450-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let it cool.

Put the bread cubes in a large salad bowl. Add one large cucumber, diced; a thinly sliced red onion; about 12 basil leaves, torn; and two large, soft tomatoes, cut into chunks. Make sure you scrape all the juices from your cutting board into the bowl.

Sprinkle the mix with your favorite coarse salt and give it a generous grind of black pepper. Drizzle everything with 4 to 5 tablespoons of good extra-virgin olive oil and 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar. Toss gently, adding more olive oil and/or vinegar if needed.

Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Let everything sit at room temperature for a few minutes so the bread has time to soak up all the flavors.

Sit back and enjoy your bowl of Panzanella with a glass of Pinot Grigio or Sangiovese. Note the lovely riot of red, green and white – all of the colors of the Italian flag. Dig in and pretend you’re in the other Florence.

Buon appetito, ya’ll!

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Libby Wiersema writes about dining, food trends and the state’s culinary history for Discover South Carolina as well as other print and online media. Contact her at libbyscarolinaspoon@gmail.com.

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