What to Do with Tomatoes, Cucumbers, and Stale Bread: Make Panzanella

At last, we have ripe tomatoes, really ripe ones, red through and through and sweet. I get to pick them out of the hoop house here in the garden, and maybe you have ripe ones in your garden, too. Surely the best tomatoes of summer must be available in farmers’ markets and farm stands by now. The cucumbers are beginning to come in strongly, too, and I am growing a lovely slicer called Summer Dance which has smooth skin, hardly any spines at all and small tender seeds. Charming.

Good stale bread is little harder to come by, though cooks who like to bake their own baguettes or ciabatta or even crusty no-knead bread won’t have a problem and we in Maine where lots of artisanal bakers make Old World-style bread, can buy loaves that dry out instead of turning blue. Probably the hardest part would be not to eat the good stuff before enough can get stale to make panzanella, an Italian-style salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and bread, perfect for late summer.

Historically, there were so many things to do with stale bread before we added preservatives to it, like even using it to thicken sauces and gravies. We reach for flour or cornstarch instead. We buy stuffing in packages, instead of using stale bread. I don’t know how many people make bread pudding anymore or French toast. One variety of good old Yankee brown bread calls for bread crumbs instead of wheat flour to use with corn and rye meals.

The idea of mixing bread with salad vegetables certainly isn’t one I grew up with, but I love the combination. In some respects, panzanella is a tomato and cucumber sandwich that was left out overnight then ended up smashed. I fantasized about adding bacon for a B.L.T. version of the salad, and certainly you can add fresh mozzarella, too. Kalamatta olives would be tasty, and maybe capers, but then we tread farther away from traditional panzanella.

You can consider a side trip from Italy to Spain if you end up with leftover panzanella, by dumping it into a food processor to puree a base for gazpacho which traditionally was thickened with bread crumbs.

I’ll bet you won’t end up with leftovers.

Serves: Six
  • 5 slices of stale Italian bread
  • water
  • 2 large, very ripe tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • ½ medium red onion
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Sprig of basil
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Break the stale bread into bite-sized chunks, and sprinkle with water to soften it.
  2. Cut the tomatoes and cucumber into bite-sized pieces.
  3. Slice the onion thinly.
  4. Put the bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onion into a large bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar.
  5. Add the olive oil and toss salad gently.
  6. Tear the basil into pieces, add salt and pepper, and taste to adjust seasoning.
  7. Let stand for at least an hour and even several hours.


Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.