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Grilled Panzanella Salad

This post is brought to you by The Next Iron Chef. Their season premiere featured the secret challenge ingredient of bread. Best of luck to this season's chefs!

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[Photograph: Caroline Russock]

There's many ways to deal with day-old bread. Grind it into bread crumbs for your mac and cheese, soak it in custard and bourbon for bread pudding, stuff your turkey with it, or if all else fails, just do what I do and use it up in your homemade dog food.

But right now—early fall—is about the best time of the year to make panzanella. The classic Northern Italian salad of day-old bread and tomatoes is best at this time of year, when the last tomatoes of the summer have ripened beyond capacity and are splitting open with excess juice. The tomatoes, which are well past their prime, are simply too wet for salads or sandwiches. But soak up those juices with day-old bread, and you've got the makings of one of the humblest, but most delicious combinations known to man.

The version of the salad here was one that my friend Josh and I threw together one summer back when we still had a garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was born of the fact that:

The combination of grilled bread and fresh, raw tomatoes gives the salad an almost pizza-like base—a balanced combination of sweet and tart, with a distinct smoky undercurrent. Adding zucchini, peppers, and red onions converts it from a hearty side dish to a full-on meal.

The best part? You don't even have to follow the recipe. Any combination of mixed vegetables works. I've done it with eggplant, peppers, summer squash, fennel, and quickly-grilled hearts of romaine to name a few. And the versatility doesn't stop there. Don't have any day old Italian bread? Sourdough, hearty rye, or even pita bread will all work wonderfully. For a heartier dish, add cubes of cheese (fresh mozzarella works, so do smaller chunks or crumbles of sharper cheese like Parmigiana-Reggiano or feta), canned tuna packed in olive oil, or anchovies. Mix up the herbs with whatever you've got. Basil or cilantro are especially nice. As long as your basic ratios of bread to vegetables to juice is right, pretty much any combination will do.

The real key to getting the best flavor out of the salad is to salt the tomatoes before you begin cooking the vegetables and bread. Extra juices will be drawn out through osmosis, giving you even more flavorful liquid to soak into the bread.

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