If any one dish symbolizes the glory and versatility of summer tomatoes, I'd place my vote with panzanella. The Italian classic needs nothing more than some stale bread, a few pantry staples, and a load of tomatoes to make an incredible dish, even if it's not much of a meal. Usually it's served as a side to grilled meat, which is all well and good, but could it stand up on its own?
I'd seen mozzarella added to the mix to help bulk it out, so I decided to explore that route. But considering I'm a whole lot closer to Wisconsin than to Italy, I found it a lot easier to track down cheese curds.
The hyper fresh cheese (best eaten within a day of creation) is mild, but has a pleasing squeakiness that I knew would provide a great textural counterpoint to the panzanella. Sadly, besides the texture, when I just tossed them in a bowl with the tomatoes and bread, they didn't do much else. Could I cook them? Golden and crispy fried cheese curds popped in my mind, though I ultimately couldn't bring myself to deal with bubbling oil for such a summery meal. Instead I took a tip from local farmers' markets, and decided to cook them on a cast-iron grill pan.
This was not without its own issues. If the heat is too high, the cheese melts on contact. The crispy leftovers are certainly delicious, but I wanted to have the best of both worlds: crispy, browned edges and some of the fresh cheese. By grilling them over medium-low heat on only one side, I managed to hit the sweet spot. Without the time to wait around for bread to go stale, I also decided to toast it on a cast-iron grill pan. In the end, the heirloom tomatoes are still the stars, but the cheese adds a nice savory edge, making this a filling and satisfying meal.
- Yield:serves 4
- Active time: 20 minutes
- Total time:30 minutes
- 2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, stemmed, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 medium clove garlic, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
- 12 fresh basil leaves, chopped
- Kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 3/4 pound hearty bread (ciabatta works well), sliced into 1-inch thick slices
- 4 ounces cheese curd, cut into 1-inch cubes
In a large bowl, combine the chopped tomatoes, red wine vinegar, garlic, basil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 4 tablespoons of the olive oil. Stir well and set aside.
Set a grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush the slices of bread with a tablespoon of the oil. Cook, flipping occasionally, until grill marks appear and the bread is crisp. Set bread aside on a cutting board to cool for a minute.
Meanwhile, reduce the heat on the grill pan to medium-low. Wait a minute or two for it to cool down, and then brush with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add the curds and cook until they are browned and crisp on the bottom, but not completely melted on top. When done, use a fork and carefully remove the curds from the grill pan and set aside on a plate.
Chop the bread slices into 1-inch cubes and toss well with the tomatoes. Season the mixture with more salt if needed. Divide the panzanella between four large bowls and garnish with the grilled cheese curds.