Kitchen alchemy with late tomatoes

Stale bread is the start of delicious panzanella.
Stale bread is the start of delicious panzanella. Los Angeles Times

There are two things you’ll almost always find on my kitchen counter at this time of year: ripe tomatoes and stale bread. The first is a blessing, of course; the second less so. But between them, I usually have a head start on dinner.

If the bread is only slightly stale, use it as a base for bruschetta If the bread is really stale – I’m talking rock hard here – grind it to crumbs in the food processor along with garlic and fresh herbs. Then stuff this into tomato halves, drizzle with olive oil and bake until the tomato is nearly melting.

But my favorite tomato-stale bread combination lately has been panzanella. This is a Tuscan bread salad – think of it almost as a warm-weather version of a bread pudding. As hot as it’s been, I’ve been making it a couple times a week.

Panzanella is bread soaked in the juices of ripe tomatoes, with only the barest accompaniments – cucumbers, red onions and a pungent vinaigrette. Put it out with some cubes of fresh feta, a few olives and a bottle of rosé.

If you’re thinking more about fall, take those same tomatoes and make a lovely soup, or try another tomato salad that includes a fall favorite: butternut squash.


Time: 30 minutes, plus marinating times

One 14- to 16-ounce loaf country bread

1 pound cucumbers


1/2 red onion

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons capers

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 pounds tomatoes, cut in bite-size chunks

6 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup torn basil leaves

Trim the crusts from the loaf and cut the bread in 1-inch cubes, arrange them on a baking sheet and bake in a low oven until they are crisp to the touch, about 1 hour. If the loaf is already stale, just cut in cubes.

Trim the ends from the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise and use the tip of a small spoon to scoop the seeds from the center. Cut in 1 / 2-inch half-moons and place in a strainer. Toss with 1 teaspoon salt and leave to drain for 30 minutes.

Cut the onion in 1/4-inch half-moons and place in a bowl of cold water to cover to stand for 30 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine the anchovies, garlic and capers and stir roughly with a spoon to make a chunky paste. Gradually stir in the vinegar and set aside.

Place the dried bread cubes in a colander and rinse under running water. They should be moistened but not soaked. Shake vigorously to remove any excess water.

Transfer the moistened bread cubes to a large bowl. Add the tomatoes and the drained red onion. Rinse the cucumbers until they no longer taste salty, pat dry and add to the bowl.

Briskly stir the vinegar-anchovy-caper mixture, slowly adding the olive oil to make a coarse, chunky vinaigrette. Pour over the bread mixture and toss to combine. Set aside for at least 30 minutes. The dish can be prepared to this point a couple of hours in advance and refrigerated tightly covered.

Bring to room temperature, then just before serving fold in the basil and serve.

Serves 6 to 8

Tomato-happy salad

Prep time: 15 minutes

Roast time: 40 minutes

2 pounds (about 1 large) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 cup walnuts

10 ounces fresh baby spinach

1 avocado, peeled, pitted, sliced

2 cups grape tomatoes, halved

Walnut oil (or more olive oil)

Balsamic vinegar

Toss together squash, olive oil, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and the red pepper. Spread out on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Slide into a 400-degree oven and roast, stirring once or twice, until tender, about 40 minutes.

Settle walnuts in a small pan and slide into the oven along with the squash. Toast, shaking once or twice, until fragrant and crisp, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, toss together spinach and avocado. Roll in tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with walnut oil and balsamic. When squash and nuts are ready, toss those in too. The hot squash will wilt the spinach a bit – a nice effect..

Serves 4 to 6

Garden fresh tomato soup

Adapted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from Recipe can easily be halved.

8 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded, about 8 medium

1 large or 2 small onions, sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 sprig fresh thyme or pinch dried, optional

6 whole cloves

4 cups vegetable stock

4 tablespoons butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons granulated sugar

In a stockpot, combine tomatoes, onion, garlic, thyme (if using), cloves, and chicken or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, lower temperature to a simmer, and cook 20 minutes. Remove sprig of thyme, garlic and as many of the cloves as you can easily find.

Blend (in batches, if necessary) or use an immersion blender, or run through a food mill. Put mixture in a large bowl.

In the empty stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour to make a roux; cook while stirring until the roux is a medium brown, about 10 minutes. Gradually whisk in a bit of the tomato mixture, so that no clumps form.

Stir in the rest of the tomato mixture. Season with salt and sugar, and adjust seasonings to taste.

Serves 5