Why We Cook: Tuscan Panzanella

Cook, Why We Cook

This post comes to us courtesy of cooking instructor Jodi Liano.


I was definitely born with a cooking gene. My maternal great grandmother cooked for a living, making school lunches (back in the day when they were delicious). I remember being eye-high to the cutting board when she’d visit us in Seattle, and I’d watch her make the creamiest mac and cheese I’d ever tasted. My paternal grandparents owned a fish market, which describes my life-long love for Dungeness crab. Everyone in my family cooked and, with two working parents, my brother and I pitched in whenever asked to be sure a homemade meal was on the table every night. That was my mom’s way of making sure we grew up with some pretty strong skills in the kitchen.


But it was another country entirely that led me to cook professionally. I enrolled in a one-week cooking class in Florence, Italy with the legendary Giuliano Bugialli. I was going solo and had imagined the rolling vineyard-covered hills of Tuscany, making sheets of fresh pasta, and making small talk with strangers from who-knows-where. While all of those ideas came to fruition, I never could have imagined I’d have a life-changing moment. In the middle of one class I remember thinking to myself, “Wait a minute, he’s teaching people to cook and making a living doing it? Now, that is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Needless to say I lasted about six more weeks in my job before I quit, moved to San Francisco, and enrolled in culinary school.  Thirteen years later I’ve never looked back, and I think about that moment all the time.


The dish that stuck with me most from that trip was a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute panzanella. This Tuscan bread salad takes chunks of stale, bland bread and coats them in the most gorgeous ripe tomatoes you’ve ever tasted. It’s one to make when you can find the absolute best tomatoes in your garden or farmers’ market — certainly not a winter salad. But file this away for that day. Throw one together yourself and, who knows, maybe you’ll have a life-changing moment too.


Tuscan Panzanella

In true Italian style, the measurements here are just guidelines. Add more or less of anything to your taste.


2 tsp. red wine vinegar
6 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 loaf Italian style country bread, such as Pugliese, torn into 1-inch pieces (ideally day-old)
4 ripe in-season tomatoes, diced over a bowl to catch the juices
1/2 English cucumber, cut into 1-inch pieces
Handful of briny black olives, pitted
1/2 bunch fresh basil


In a large wooden salad bowl, combine the vinegar and oil with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the onion and let it sit for 15 minutes. Toss in the bread, tomatoes, cucumber and olives and moisten with just enough of the tomato juices to gently soften the bread. Tear the basil into small pieces and scatter over the top of the salad. Taste and season as needed with additional salt, pepper, oil, or vinegar. Enjoy right away. Serves 6 as a side dish.


About the author: I am a cooking instructor and food writer from San Francisco. Originally from Seattle, I moved to SF in 1998 to pursue a career in food. After culinary school I worked at Rose Pistola and the Blue Plate in SF, Sunset Magazine, the Food Network in New York, and Bay Cafe, to name a few. My passion is teaching cooking and I’ve made a career doing just that at Tante Marie’s Cooking School San Francisco. I’ve also written three books for Williams Sonoma-“New Flavors: Vegetables”,”Cooking From the Farmer’s Market” and “Eggs”. I’m a huge proponent of family dinner so most nights you’ll find me eating at home with my husband and son. When I’m out in SF, I’m probably eating a Panna Pie at Pizzeria Delfina, a Rainbow Salad at Burma Superstar, Chopped Liver at Bar Agricole, or Coffee Ice Cream with Jimmies from Swensen’s .

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