The Chef Apprentice

Join a self-taught cook as he trains at a top restaurant

September 14, 2009
Panzanella - Oliveto style
panzanella 2.jpgBefore working at Oliveto, I developed my own recipe for panzanella, a tomato and bread salad that has multiple versions throughout central Italy.

Stuart's version? Take slices of frozen sliced bread from the ridge, toast them and rub them with a half a clove of garlic. Then mix together wine vinegar, olive oil, basil, onions and other ingredients, and fold in sliced tomatoes and the bread.

It's a pretty tasty dish if you eat it immediately, but the bread can get soggy quickly -- not the best technique for a dinner party.

At Oliveto, the chefs have a more elegant approach. They prepare golden croutons of bread, toasted in olive oil. They toss the croutons with the salad at the last moment, adding a nice crunch. And since there is plenty of olive oil in the croutons, there's no need to add any to the dressing.

My recommendation? If you are going to make croutons, make a mess of them, using one or two loafs of bread. Then freeze the remainder. They freeze very well and are delicious with soups and salads.

Panzanella (serves 8)

Ingredients
One half loaf Pugliese bread, such as Acme or Bella Bru
2 red onions
1 cucumber
6-8 tomatoes, preferably of varying colors and textures.
1 small bunch basil
3/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup to 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Equipment:
Bowls, sheet trays lined with parchment

Preparation
Pour 1/2 cup of olive oil into a large bowl. Add half the basil, removed from stems. Let sit.
 
Cut crusts off of bread. To do this, cut loaf in half, creating a flat surface on which the half loaf can rest on your cutting board. Then use a serrated knife to carefully cut off crusts. (Reserved crusts can be saved, frozen, toasted, and ground up for bread crumbs.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using your fingers, tear bread into chunks the size of a quarter. Toss in bowl with olive oil. Add more oil, if needed, to thoroughly coat.

DSCN3766.JPGSpread bread pieces on one or two parchment-lined sheet pans. Remove basil leaves and reserve. Place in oven. Check and stir after 10 minutes. Croutons are done when pieces are uniformly golden, but not dark brown, as seen to the left. (Croutons can be prepared a day, or several hours, in advance.)

Prepare onions into thin slices (a half julienne) and toss into a bowl. Add 1/3 cup vinegar and a generous sprinkle of salt.

Peel skins off of cucumber and slice it in half lengthwise. Then slice into half moons about 3/16 of an inch thick. Add to bowl along with reserved basil leaves.

Slice tomatoes into uniform wedges, about the size of ping-pong balls, and place in a bowl.

When ready to serve, mix tomatoes with the marinated onions and cucumber and fold in the croutons. Add remaining basil leaves, torn in pieces. Adjust salt, and add black pepper to taste. Arrange on plates. Serve.

Variations: Feel free to add or substitute green beans, capers, green onions or other seasonal ingredients. The tomatoes are the most important part - they must be fresh and ripe, bursting with flavor. 
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About The Chef Apprentice

Stuart Leavenworth, an editorial writer for The Bee, will spend the next several months in the kitchen at Oliveto, a highly rated Italian restaurant in the Bay Area. As an apprentice, Stuart will start as a prep chef, preparing vegetables, soups, sauces and pasta fillings. Then he'll move on to more challenging assignments. He welcomes your questions. Read his first installment here. Email him at sleavenworth@sacbee.com.

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