Category Archives: Lunches & Snacks

Panzanella

Hurricane season calls for comfort food, something to soothe us during days of relentless what-if TV coverage and weather app updates on the wind and rain of the latest named storm.

Ice cream may well be comfort food, but it requires refrigeration, and a puddle of spumoni will comfort no one. So we suggest something that doesn’t rely on contrived cooling: panzanella, the Italian salad of bread and raw vegetables. A no-cook dish that can be made ahead, its textures and flavors transcend its humble genesis– domestic frugality, making use of bread that, if not yet stale, has aged beyond its best self.

 Late Harvest Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Late Harvest Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Photo by Vince Lee on Unsplash

Chunks of bread absorb the juices of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onion that have been dressed with oil & vinegar. The salad is seasoned with salt, black pepper, and fresh herbs, usually basil and parsley. Like many Old World Italian classics, panzanella exemplifies how much can be made of very little. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, and a rescue dish for home gardeners.

Occurring at what is the peak of the home garden output, the most active weeks of the North American hurricane season can be cruel to gardeners and late summer’s ripening produce. We urge you to harvest ahead of the next credible storm threat, before torrential rains do in the fruits of your hard work.

Should you be overwhelmed with produce, remember that panzanella is like your nonna at Sunday lunch– ever ready to welcome more guests.

In other words, your Panzanella di Tempesta, Hurricane Panzanella, has room for some ad hoc additions and garnishes. Optional produce that can be added raw to the salad’s seasoned oil & vinegar are: young zucchini, radishes, scallions, celery, tomatillos, lettuces, arugula, very young string beans, sugar-snap peas, pea tendrils, chives, mint, oregano, thyme… Of course, if you are growing these things, you already know many other ways to show them the respect they deserve and would never let a storm claim them!

With a little forethought to stocking your Almost Italian pantry, the Blessed Panzanella Trinity of good bread, olive oil, and wine vinegar, can be the basis of varied meals over a few days, even if those days are without electricity. For the record: panzanella saw the AlmostItalian.com writers through an entire week during and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

It goes without saying that if you are among our readers, you already have a nice red or white wine vinegar and flavorful olive oil on hand.

Before the power goes out: gather bread, something better than the hot-dog rolls left over from your Labor Day cookout. Panzanella demands bread with heft; day-old or older is fine– “artisan” or sourdough, white or dark– anything but sweet. If there’s time to plan ahead, tear or cut the bread into 1-inch pieces and lightly toast them in the oven. When they are cool, store them in tightly closed plastic bags. This way, they won’t go moldy in the damp weather ahead.

Like cut flowers, your fresh herbs, flat-leaf Italian parsley, basil, mint… will stay fresh with their stems in a glass of water.

Hard-boiled eggs in their shells and cheeses like feta, ricotta salata, and mozzarella can last a few days in a cooler. But if you want additional protein, be sure to have a manual can opener handy for your tins of chickpeas, tuna, and anchovies.

Even after opening, many brined and oil-packed condiments– capers, giardiniera, roasted or pickled peppers, olives– will safely last a few days without refrigeration.

Secure your salt in a screw-top glass jar to keep it dry. Fill your pepper grinder. Have some peperoncino flakes for those who want a bit of heat. Panzanella benefits from freshly minced garlic, but we suggest you add it only to what you plan to consume for a particular meal and no more than an hour before serving. Leftover panzanella is delicious, but garlic left in a salad too long will overpower everything else.

The ingredients you actually have on hand will guide what you make. Proportions of bread to vegetables are the cook’s choice. We use roughly one part toasted bread chunks to three parts vegetables and fresh herbs. We don’t seed or peel any of the vegetables except the onion and garlic; and we leave the crusts on our bread.

The Basics

Good quality bread with some body– fresh or older
Ripe tomatoes
Cucumbers
Bermuda onion
Fresh herbs (at least one): basil, Italian flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint
Fresh garlic
Your favorite olive oil
Your favorite vinegar: red or white wine, or even cider vinegar
Salt
Black pepper in a grinder– you’ll use it freshly ground

Optional Embellishments
Jarred & canned items to enrich (and vary) your panzanella through multiple meals… Don’t forget to have a manual can-opener.

Cannellini, white navy beans, chickpeas
Pitted olives
Capers
Canned tuna
Oil-packed anchovies
Tinned sardines
Roasted peppers
Giardiniera
Pickled cherry peppers

Keep these cool:

Hard boiled eggs
Cheeses such as feta, mozzarella, ricotta salata

Panzanella recipes and photographs abound— in many older Italian-american cookbooks and on scores of online sites. Contrast the classic version offered by Patricia Wells and the gilded treatment presented by David Leibovitz. The mere assemblage of rustic loaves beside a bowl of magenta crescents of Bermuda onion, grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, and basil leaves glistening with oil is indeed Instagrammable. So, why wait for a hurricane? Rain or shine, gather good ingredients and your own panzanella will also be beautiful, whether you make yours ahead or after a power loss, assembling it by candlelight. Click away, but keep an eye on your smartphone’s battery just in case you do need that flashlight feature.

Pepper and Egg Sandwich

Pepper and Egg Sandwiches
Photograph courtesy Sublicious

Does anyone under 35 (or 45, or even under 55) remember Lent? Our generations of gratification probably don’t think of a pre-packaged Jenny Craig meal the same way our parents and grandparents viewed meatless meals in the six weeks prior to Easter.

These days, abstinence from the food we enjoy often means we’re trying to look good in a bathing suit. Lent, on the other hand, is supposed to be contemplative and its dietary limitations soul-strengthening. The cottage cheese and fruit plate or the tuna casserole made with canned cream of mushroom soup— the so-called “Lenten lunch” often served in church basements after World War II, was usually a little frumpy.

UPDATE in April 2020: Lent aside, for anyone sheltering in place right now, pepper and egg sandwiches are the comfort-food we long for, retro school-day lunches at home with Nonna. If nothing else, they’re a reminder that there were meatless, guilt-free pleasures to be had before sushi and sashimi came ashore.

Italian-Americans have long enjoyed pepper and egg sandwiches on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. One suspects their appeal may have much to do with their simplicity—welcome after the excesses of Carnevale or Martedi Grasso. In Chicago’s Italian-American community, pepper and egg sandwiches once enlivened meatless Fridays throughout the entire Lenten period.

Not quite a fritatta, a pepper and egg sandwich is the combination of garlic, bell peppers, and onion, sautéed in olive oil until the peppers are wilted. Beaten eggs are added, and the whole mixture cooked until the eggs are done. The peppers and eggs are served inside a hearty loaf. Possible embellishments include either provolone or mozzarella and pale green pickled peperoncini, which add an acidic bite that contrasts with the sweetness of the fried bell peppers.

Since the 1950s, and possibly earlier, the “pepp ‘n egg” sandwich has been a popular lunch or snack. When I was a child, my Sicilian Methodist family spent summers on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, where we and other Italian-American families would pack picnic baskets full of pepper and egg sandwiches for an afternoon at the beach. As an adult, I encountered the sandwiches again in Rockport, Massachusetts, where I lived briefly among descendants of Calabrese, who favored them as picnic food. The photo above is a roadside diner near the New Jersey shore. No matter where they’ve turned up, no one has ever considered these meatless sandwiches the food of abstinence, especially not when they might be washed down with a cold beer or two.

Ingredients:

1 or 2 Tbs. Olive oil
1 Clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 tsp Crushed red pepper flakes
1 Medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 Red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 Green bell pepper, thinly sliced
3 eggs, beaten
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 Loaf Italian bread (such as a bastone or a ciabatta)

Preparation:

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic and the crushed red pepper and sauté for a minute or two. Add the onion and peppers, regulating the heat so the onions don’t burn. Sauté until the peppers have softened.

Raise the heat to medium-high and add the beaten eggs. Stir to combine with the onions and peppers and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggs are set.

Slice the bread lengthwise without cutting all the way through. When the eggs are done, gently slide them onto the bread to make a sandwich and cut the loaf into four portions.

Serves 2 – 4