Last week on a recent trip to California, Carey Jones and I were zipping around town in our Ford Escape and headed over to Zuni Café where I, for the first time, tried the awesome roast chicken. But as good as the chicken was, the dish really isn't about the chicken at all: it's about the bread salad that it's served on top of. Crusty, crisp, and soaked in chicken-y juices, it's almost more chicken-flavored than the chicken itself, if you can believe it.
Since then, I've had bread salads on the mind. I love a good classic panzanella—stale bread tossed with fresh ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and perhaps some basil and vinegar. That is, I love it during tomato season when I have access to completely fresh-off-the-vine, summer-ripe tomatoes. Any other time of the year, panzanella can go over to the corner and suck it.
There are, thankfully, other things available this time of year that can be used to riff on the same concept. Asparagus comes to mind, and as my wife and I happened to have just moved into a brand new apartment with a balcony, I decided to break in the new grill with a grilled asparagus and bread salad with zucchini, red onions, and vinaigrette of capers and olives.
Grilling is one of the best ways to treat asparagus. I like to toss it in olive oil, then grill it until almost blackened on one side over very high heat. Just like with broccoli or cauliflower, the blackened bits take on a distinct, caramelized sweetness that enhances the natural sweetness of the vegetable. The key to great asparagus in a salad like this is to use stalks that are fat enough that you can cook them long enough to get good grilled flavor, but will still retain good fresh crunch in the center.
Similarly, relatively bland zucchini picks up plenty of smokiness on the grill provided you char it enough. I tried threading cubes onto skewers, or slicing it into thin planks, but both those methods ended up delivering pieces that were smoky, but too soft to use effectively in my salad. Instead, I ended up halving them lengthwise, brushing them with oil, then grilling them just until blackened, cutting them into bite-sized pieces only after they came off the grill.
As for the bread, a classic panzanella calls for stale bread so that it doesn't get soggy when it starts absorbing juices. I didn't have any stale bread on hand, so instead I started with a fresh loaf of Italian bread that I split in half and held over the cooler side of the grill until it was dry and crusty before finishing it off on the hot side to get some charred, burnt spots.
With a panzanella, much of the liquid that the bread absorbs comes from the tomato. Asparagus, zucchini, and onion don't give off nearly as much juice, which means you need to dress this salad extra well, with brightly flavored ingredients. I based my dressing on chopped Taggiasche olives (Kalamatas would do fine) and capers, along with some red wine vinegar, parsley, plenty of really good olive oil (time to break out the extra virgin), and finished it off with a squeeze of lemon that I grilled over the embers to add an extra dimension of smokiness. If you want to go all-out, I can imagine anchovies being great in here as well.
Let me just say this: this dish is f*&king delicious. Bread salads may well become a staple of my summer table. Not only that, but it's great the next day, which is good news for my wife's lunch box.
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