Spring panzanella. When you just can’t wait until midsummer for your favorite traditional Italian bread salad, try this rendition with spears of spring asparagus. You can thank us later.
Spring panzanella is essentially a springtime riff on the traditional Italian peasant dish made from stale bread. The combination of bread soaked in vinaigrette, fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers, asparagus, and Parmesan is so spectacular you’ll forget that you’re actually eating salad. It makes a lovely light lunch or side dish or can be made into a more substantial meal by adding chicken. The choice is yours. So is the pleasure.–Angie Zoobkoff
Spring Panzanella FAQs
Can you add chicken to this spring panzanella?
To make chicken panzanella, substitute grilled chicken breasts in place of the asparagus and Parmesan in the recipe. You can use any grilled, seared, roasted, or rotisserie chicken.
What if I don’t have stale bread?
No problem, we’ll make some. Take a serrated knife and slice a loaf of whatever bread you have on hand into roughly 1/2-inch (12-mm) cubes, crust and all. You can also tear the loaf into pieces by hand for a more rustic look. Spread the bread out in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a low oven set for 225°F (107°C) for 30 to 40 minutes until dry. Be sure to check on it now and then.
Can you make this panzanella ahead of time?
Somewhat. You can make your dressing, cut your bread, and select your ingredients ahead of time, but this particular panzanella is a little different as some of the ingredients are roasted and grilled. Each of the steps are required so that the components have time to meld and mingle, marry and get all marvelous. It should be served within about 5 minutes of assembling.
What is the best bread for panzanella?
We like dense, hearty, artisan loaves like sourdough or ciabatta or even a baguette. Stay away from lighter, fluffier breads as they tend to break down more quickly in the salad – even when toasted.
- 4 to 5 medium (18 oz) vine-ripened tomatoes chopped into bite-size chunks
- 1 garlic clove peeled and halved (optional)
- 2 thick slices of stale country-style bread torn into bite-size chunks
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 orange bell pepper
- 1/2 red onion diced
- 3 tablespoons nonpareil capers rinsed and patted dry
- 1 to 2 large handfuls basil leaves torn into pieces if desired
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus extra for brushing
- 20 slender asparagus spears stalks trimmed
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese pared into large shavings
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a strainer placed over a mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes with a sprinkle of salt and crush the tomatoes slightly with the back of a fork and let them rest in the strainer for about 15 minutes so the juices drain into the bowl. You should end up with 2 to 4 tablespoons tomato juice.
- Meanwhile, reach for a large serving bowl. If desired, rub the inside of the bowl with the cut side of the garlic. [Editor’s Note: It’s sorta tradition to do this. To be frank, we usually can’t detect the garlic, although it’s quite possible it lends a subtle underlying something to the finished dish. Suit yourself.] Add the bread and pour in the vinegar and water. Toss the bread until coated in the vinegar mixture.
- Hold the bell pepper with tongs over the flame of a stovetop gas burner or place it on a baking sheet under the broiler or place it on the grill, turning it occasionally, until charred all over, 5 to 15 minutes. (If using a broiler, go ahead and halve the pepper and place it flat on the baking sheet, cut side down.) Toss the pepper into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 5 minutes to make the skin easier to peel. Rub the blackened skin off the pepper, cut it in half, remove the seeds, and chop the pepper into bite-size chunks the same size as the tomatoes.
- Add the onion, capers, basil, tomatoes and their juices, and roasted bell pepper to the bowl with the bread. Add the oil and season the salad with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine and then let stand for at least 15 minutes at room temperature to allow the flavors to mingle.
- While the panzanella is resting, heat a grill pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Brush the asparagus with a little oil and cook, shaking the pan occasionally to turn the spears, until the asparagus is tender and blackened in places, 3 to 5 minutes. If desired, cut the asparagus into bite-size lengths.
- Divide the panzanella among shallow serving bowls and then top with the asparagus and the Parmesan shavings.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
I liked this spring panzanella enough to buy more bread the next day so that I could make the salad again. That’s high praise. I’m very fond of panzanella salads, and have made many variations, which have included other vegetables such as cucumbers and artichokes. Winter panzanellas at our house have even included cubes of roasted butternut squash. The addition of fresh asparagus, which is very much in season here, was a very pleasant surprise. I am a big fan of the tang the vinegar gives the bread. The combination of the vegetables in this salad with the bread is a win/win. This particular salad, with these vegetables, is very fresh, very light, and very easy to eat.
This spring panzanella recipe was perfect for lunch. All the vegetables made it feel like a healthy, light lunch while the bread and cheese indulged my need for something fun. I’d definitely make this over and over. The next time I make this, I will probably try grilling the bread to see how it changes things up.
Rave reviews from my guests for this spring panzanella! Lots of flavor, great color combination, an all-around excellent side dish for a spring dinner.
My only issue with the recipe was the presentation. With everything else in the recipe cut into bite-size pieces, I found it a bit unwieldy to have the asparagus left whole on top. Next time, I’d probably cut them to bite-size pieces and just mix them into the rest of the panzanella. Same goes for the basil. I love basil but I would have preferred to have the leaves torn a bit so there weren’t such gigantic pieces in the salad. I served it with some grilled chicken drumsticks and quick pickled cucumbers for a spring meal.
Ripe tomatoes, fragrant basil, and crisp asparagus—this spring panzanella is packed with wonderful in-season flavors. And the tangy salty bites of the capers and cheese are lovely additions. “Sturdy” seems to be the key word for some of the ingredients to keep the salad’s robust texture while it sits.
I used meaty plum tomatoes (fewer seeds) and they rendered just enough juice to coat the salad and never became mushy. My ciabatta bread was very stale and dry (I almost couldn’t tear it by hand) and it didn’t get soggy, even when I had the leftover portion of panzanella the next day.
My asparagus was about 5/8- to 1/2-inch in diameter at the base, and the spears withstood the high heat and stayed firm and crisp. I’m glad I also prepared the chicken (not instead of the asparagus but in addition to it) to make the meal more substantial for dinner. We felt that the panzanella itself would serve 3 people but 4 chicken breasts (which are quite big nowadays) can serve up to 6 people.
I had just made sourdough bread a couple of days earlier and there was a piece left over which was getting hard. It was the perfect time for this salad. The bread had big airy holes and absorbed the flavors. I was so happy the bread didn’t go to waste. You need ripe tomatoes to really make this flavorful. I enjoyed this salad! My other taster found the bread too soggy but I didn’t.
A satisfying spring panzanella salad made with stale bread (country bread is the best option). The bread dissolves into a soft consistency, full of flavors. You just need to let the panzanella rest for a few minutes after being prepared. Top with asparagus and shavings of Parmesan or serve with slices of marinated chicken breast and you get a rich Italian salad for a complete meal. I tested this both with asparagus and the chicken: they are both good choices.
The salad worked well and the techniques complemented each other.
Originally published May 29, 2017