Roast Chicken With Asparagus Panzanella (Or, the Secret to Panzanella Without Tomatoes)

Creating a vinaigrette with blanched asparagus stems is the key to a successful, tomato-free version of panzanella. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

I've been on a stale-bread roll all week, first with my tests on the best way to store bread, and then with my Portuguese bread soup recipe. I still had a little stale bread left over, so at the risk of the topic getting...erm...stale, I set out to create one more recipe.

This time, I was in the mood for panzanella, the classic Tuscan bread salad with tomatoes. The only problem is that for panzanella to be good, the tomatoes have to be excellent, and we're not quite in perfect tomato season here in NYC. So instead, I decided to make a spring panzanella with asparagus and serve it with a simple roast chicken, following Kenji's spatchcock method. But an asparagus panzanella presents problems of its own.

One of the reasons that the classic tomato panzanella is so good is because tomatoes, as a savory fruit, are incredibly juicy. All those delicious juices, along with good olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar, soak into the stale bread to make it taste wonderful. Without lots of moisture, the salad is practically destined to fail. A vegetable like asparagus poses a unique challenge, since it isn't nearly as juicy as tomatoes.

My solution was twofold. First, I blanched all of the asparagus until crisp-tender, which helps increase its juiciness. Then I split the asparagus stalks in half, saving the top halves to add in pieces to the salad, and using the bottom halves to make a vinaigrette with olive oil and vinegar. By puréeing those asparagus stalks in a blender, I was able to rupture the vegetable's cell walls and release even more of the asparagus juices hiding within.

Still, even puréed asparagus isn't enough to soak the bread. So the second thing I did was to look for some help from a mildly flavored, very watery vegetable: cucumber. Peeled and cut into chunks, seeds and all, I added a small Persian cucumber to the vinaigrette and blended it in as well. It ends up making a fair amount of vinaigrette, which may seem like too much for the quantity of bread, but trust me: that bread needs all the moisture it can get.

Then, I tossed the vinaigrette and bread together and let them sit for at least five minutes to let the bread soak up the moisture. Finally, I mixed in very thinly sliced red onion, the reserved asparagus spears, and a couple more small Persian cucumbers, this time thinly sliced. It's fresh and green tasting, and moist enough to honor all that's good about a traditional panzanella.

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