Late summer is upon us. The garden is needy, and the weather, until two days ago, had not been willing to do any of the obligatory watering for me. I mostly let the tomatoes go. They were on their...
I've had a seriously frugal nature since childhood. Frugality is something we supposedly learn over time, but I swear some people are born with a "savings account" gene. I never squandered my allowance on candy or dashed off to the mall after getting a paycheck. I've always been much more likely to squirrel things away.
This mentality affects everything I do, especially cooking. Mushroom stems, onion skins, and vegetable trimmings go into a bag in the freezer for stock making. Parmesan rinds are tightly wrapped for my next batch of soup. Bean broth is poured gingerly into a container and used in my day to day cooking. I thrive on sprucing up leftovers and making meals from a nearly empty fridge. This kind of cooking can be something like a strategy game. What can I cook on Monday that I will still benefit from on Friday?
This is satisfying on a physical level, but it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment. When you can make something from nothing, your experience in the kitchen is much more holistic. Instead of buying boneless skinless chicken breasts and only knowing and experiencing that single part of the chicken, you would buy a whole chicken. In a matter of a few hours, that chicken (which is cheaper by the pound than chicken breasts) is transformed into a succulent roast from which you can make several meals, turn the bones into stock, and scrape that luscious schmaltz off your roasting pan. That's a wealth of food.
Another holistic way to think about cooking is using all the bits and pieces. It's so easy to throw away food in our culture that it may almost be an instinct to throw away "scraps." But if you take a closer look at the food you throw away, you'll start to see that almost all of it is usable. It may not be pretty or appealing, but it can serve you well.
This is especially true of bread scraps. Good, honest bread will begin to stale within a day. As much as I know you're supposed to store bread in a paper bag, I can't help sticking it in a plastic one if only to keep the bread from turning into a rock by day three. But even though toast is my standard breakfast, I always seem to have a heel of bread in the pantry. And while I do make croutons and bread crumbs regularly, you can only use so many of those.
Thankfully, millions of other people across the world and through history have had the same problem, and almost every cuisine has more than a few ways of dealing with stale bread.
One of my personal favorites is the Italian panzanella. Panzanella is basically a bread salad with tomatoes, basil, and a simple vinaigrette. The bread soaks up the tomato juice and vinaigrette, thereby softening the bread a little but still leaving it with a good chew.
Panzanella is traditionally a savory dish, but with a little tweaking it can even be dessert. Last weekend, I found myself with a heel of hearty walnut bread and a surplus of strawberries. Many of the berries were ripe to the point of falling apart, and when I tossed them with the bread, their sweet, fragrant juices made the best kind of "dressing."
This definitely falls into the category of cooking with leftovers, so use what you have on hand. Any very ripe, juicy fruit will work. You may also want to incorporate jam into your panzanella. The thought crossed my mind that a big spoonful of strawberry jam would not be amiss here. I will insist that you use good, hearty bread for this, though. Your average sandwich bread will not be sturdy enough to soak up the delicious juices without falling apart.
Preheat the broiler and place a rack in the upper third of your oven. Slice into 3/4-inch thick slices:
About 6 to 8 ounces stale bread
Spread the slices with:
Combine in a small bowl and sprinkle over the bread:
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Place the slices on a baking sheet and broil until the brown sugar has melted. Be watchful--sugar can turn from caramelized to burnt in the blink of an eye.
When the slices are cool enough to handle, cut them into bite sized cubes. Combine the cubes in a bowl with:
1 cup or so very ripe strawberries, washed and hulled
Several mint leaves, torn
Splash of rosé or white wine
Juice of 1/2 lemon or to taste
Allow the flavors to meld for at least 1/2 hour. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream or ice cream.