Light, satisfying, refreshing and also healthy, salads are a staple in the mediterranean kitchen. From East to West the recipes abound, and often mirror each other with ingredients that grow across the region. Fattoush salad, (see previous post for recipe) from Lebanon, with sumac and grilled Arabic bread, has its equivalent in Greece with the Horiatiki peasant salad made with barley rusks, and in Italy’s Panzanella with added stale bread.
My guest blog author this month, Maria Rosario Niada , remembers their cook Maura’ s Panzanella which has become a family heirloom along with other recipes that the family published in a book. Maria Rosario is a published author and an expert on Italian cuisine, with a strong interest in Cucina Povera, or the pauper’s kitchen. Maria and I met 20 years ago in the UK, together we founded The Libaliano Kitchen, a cooking workshop and blog, while our common interest in regional cuisines led us to co-author three books about pulses with traditional and modern recipes from the Mediterranean.
For more than half a century Maura Mazzei cooked for my family. In our house in Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany, she cooked without checking cook books or writing down recipes. She was a natural chef with great passion, ability and dedication. She mainly worked by hand in the kitchen, even when she mixed ingredients for cakes. With a fork, Maura was able to whisk egg whites until firm and shining, or beat yolks and sugar until pale and fluffy.
When Maura died in 2015, our family decided to honour her memory and keep her legacy alive by collecting her best recipes. The hardest work was to try her dishes until we got them exactly as we remembered. It was teamwork carried out by my mother (the best consultant with the best memory), my sisters, my cousins and I. Once we agreed upon the ingredients, the process, and the final result, writing the recipes was easy. Eventually, we published 20 of her recipes, which we regarded as her signature dishes, in a book which we distributed to family and friends.
Panzanella is one of Maura’s best summer recipes. It is a salad made with stale bread, ripe tomatoes, rocket leaves, basil, cucumber, red onion, yellow peppers, capers and olives. It is prepared a few hours in advance, to let the bread soak up the tomato juices. It’s a simple recipe, which epitomises the spirit of Maura’s cuisine. Cooking, for her meant both feeding our big family and making everyone happy. In fact, she used to prepare several panzanella at the same time in order to please everyone’s taste. So, for the children, she made plain panzanella, mixing the bread with tomatoes, rocket and basil. For some of the grown-ups, she added red onions, while for others she also mixed in peppers and cucumbers. Olives and capers were on the table for everyone to add at the very last moment.
We are still grateful to Maura for providing us with unforgettable food, along with a great sense of conviviality and hospitality.
Panzanella as inspired by Maura Mazzei
- 400 g/ 2 2/3 cups stale country bread, cut into 2 cm cubes, crust included
- 1 kg/ 2 lb ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
- 1 large red onion, finely sliced
- 1 medium cucumber, finely sliced
- 1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into strips
- 120 g/ 1/2 cup wild rocket
- 50 g 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
- 2 tablespoons good quality red wine vinegar
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin oil
- Sea salt
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 2 tablespoons black olives
- In a large bowl, arrange the bread and the tomatoes, and leave to rest for 2 hours. Stir occasionally.
- Maura used to cover the sliced onion with cold water and to leave it for 30 minutes in order to make it more digestible. Then she drained it, and patted it dry with kitchen paper.
- When the bread has soaked up the tomato juices, add all the ingredients that you like into the mixture.
- Prepare the vinaigrette by mixing 1 teaspoon of sea salt with the vinegar, then add the oil.
- Dress the panzanella, and add the rocket and the basil just before serving, otherwise they will wilt.