Thursday, August 26, 2010

Panzanella Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes

Welcome to the next installment of Tomato Month here. It's not exactly Shark Week, but you get what you get.  We're continuing to explore the heirloom tomatoes we got from Riperia Farm at the Chico Saturday Farmer's Market. This week, a deconstructed panzanella salad, made using Riperia Farm pink ping pong, jasper, and golden rave tomatoes.

Panzanella Salad

After our communication issues over the plating and presentation of the watermelon salad a few weeks back, Jhan and I decided to carefully plan out and discuss the presentation and plating of this week's panzanella salad. If you do a Google image search for panzanella salad, the first thing you'll discover is how unappetizing most of the images look. Soggy bread chunks and mushy tomato bits may taste great, but they're not appealing to look at, particularly mixed together in a big bowl. We ended up decontructing the dish to make it visually appealing. What we ended up with is, admittedly, more bruschetta than panzanella salad (so sue me - I dare you), but it was a tasty and easy to eat finger food.

The Food (Jhan)

Whatever it looks like, panzanella salad is so delicious, especially with fresh from the garden tomatoes. This salad is healthy, fresh and very filling. (Tony's main request when I mention salad for dinner is always "make sure that it's filling") These heirloom tomatoes were so beautiful, juicy, and sweet!Wow! Such a difference from store bought - go to the farmer's market and get some while they last.

This salad is great for a hot evening because the only cooking involved is toasting the bread, everything else is slicing and dicing. There are a million recipes out there for this salad so I recommend that you use this as a guideline, you could substitute olives or capers for the bacon or add some marinated mushrooms or green beans, replace the basil with fresh mint, etc.

Ingredients (serves 4 - 2 if main dish)
  • 1 1/2 - 2 lbs. fresh ripe heirloom tomatoes
  • Crusty bread 
  • 1/4-1/3 cup olive oil + 2 tbsp.
  • 1 tsp. dried basil (divided)
  • 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • Handful fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • 3 slices bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
  • 1/2 small torpedo onion or 1 small red onion
  • Gray salt
  • Pepper
  • Parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 350 (or use the toaster oven)
  2. Slice bread and cut into halves or chunks (traditionally the bread should be in chunks but using slices can make this easy summer dish into "finger food") 
  3. Pour 2 tbsp. olive oil into a skillet, add garlic and 1/2 tsp. dried basil (crush in your palm to powder) 
  4. Heat oil mix to just cook garlic
  5. Add bread, coat with oil mixture, sprinkle with finely grated Parmesan
  6. Arrange bread on baking sheet, bake 20-25 minutes until lightly toasted
  1. Mix olive oil, vinegar, 1/2tsp. dried basil, mustard, pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper until combined, set aside
  1. Cut tomatoes into bite sized chunks, put in bowl 
  2. Cut cucumber half length wise and them cut into quarters, add to bowl with tomatoes 
  3. Slice torpedo onion into thin 1/2 moon shapes, separate slices and add to bowl with vegetables 
  4. Tear basil leaves into small pieces , add to veggie bowl, toss all to combine 
  5. Add crumbled bacon pieces to bowl 
  6. Add bread chunks (or arrange toasted slices on salad plates) 
  7. Pour vinaigrette over all and toss lightly (if using toast, arrange tomato mix between toasts and drizzle dressing over veggie mix and toasts) 
  8. Sprinkle gray salt lightly over salad with a few grinds of pepper and serve 
  9. Optional: Grate Parmesan over salad

Panzanella Salad

The Plating

Though I think these photos came out great, my one regret with this shoot was the plating. Not the way we put the dish together, but the plate and background I used. I like black on black because it brings out the color in food, and that's certainly the case here. But the modern plate and the black background really aren't that appropriate for such a simple and rustic (there's that word again) dish. That's my opinion after the fact anyway. But I had just bought this cool black plate at T.J. Maxx ($2.99 or some such), and I was dieing to use it. So I did.

However, I do like the presentation of the dish. When I looked at images of panzanella salad on Google, I was horrified by the mishmash of mushy tomatoes and soggy croutons. Not pretty to look at. My first thought was that - for the camera - we had to deconstruct the dish to make it appealing to look at. Jhan understood that as well, so we spent a lot of time talking about how best to do that. The communication process was good, but what we're learning is that you never really know how a dish is going to look until you start plating it.

The Lighting and Photography

Panzanella Salad & Margherita Pizza LightingFor this shoot, I wanted some highly directional lighting with a soft fill so that I could shoot with the key light behind the dish, but still get a lot of detail in the food. So I put the key light very low and close, and shot through a reflector. I bounced a fill light off the ceiling (since I was standing at the right side of this photo when taking pictures, the fill light was coming from above and behind me). I also added another fill to the right, bounced off a sheet. The key light was 1.5 to 2 stops brighter than the fills.

Overall, I think this worked very well.

Panzanella Salad

Lessons Learned

I think the biggest lesson learned here was how to communicate on coming up with ideas to visually remake a dish. I didn't have any preconceived notions about how panzanella salad should look, other than it needed to look appealing. Jhan was flexible in the preparation so that we got something attractive and tasty. But the biggest lesson was that you just never really know how a dish is going to look until you start plating it.

Panzanella Salad


  1. First of all, the dish looks amazing! I love the play of the colors and the toasting of the bread makes it look scrumptious! Like you said, I think the black background really brings out the colors of the dish. My eyes really focus on the food.

    But I actually quite like the plate you used. The subtle lines pop out a little versus the black background and brings out the dish even more. I think it's a job well done!

  2. Sherry, Thanks! I have to admit that I love that plate, and go back and forth on using it. I still have to find what I think is the perfect dish for it.