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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 09:08 am

Dried-out and delicious

Turn those stale scraps of bread into something yummy, such as panzanella

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One of my kids' friends once said that she thought I was a reincarnation of an American Indian because I routinely find a use for leftovers or odd bits and trimmings that most people throw away. I took it as a compliment.

Back when most folks grew or made their own food, using everything was commonplace. Food was precious. It involved a lot of hard work, and waste was considered a sin.

Using every little scrap may have been a necessity, but it also resulted in the creation of some wonderful dishes that are now made just because they're so good. More milk than the family could drink became cheese. A few bones, some parsley stems, and celery and onion trimmings became soup or stock. Leftover rice became fried rice, and leftover beans became refried beans. Scraps of cheese, meat, or vegetables became fillings for ravioli, eggrolls, or any of the pantheon of stuffed items found in every cuisine.

No other leftover food has more uses as stale bread. Bread goes stale quickly, even these days when the supermarket stuff has been treated to prevent spoilage. Of course, we now have freezers to keep bread fresh as well, so making something with stale bread is as often a choice as it is a way to use bread that would otherwise go to waste. There are croutons, bread pudding, and bread stuffing. The French name for French toast, pain perdu, translates as "lost bread" — bread that would otherwise not be eaten. English stale bread contributions include bread sauce. It sounds weird, but it's essentially a white sauce thickened with bread instead of flour. Like white sauce, it's wonderful when properly made, scented with bay, onion, and nutmeg or clove; unfortunately, bad versions of either can be disgustingly gloppy. The English also make a wonderful uncooked dessert with stale bread, summer pudding. It consists simply of a bowl lined with thinly sliced, lightly buttered bread that's filled with more slices of bread layered with sweetened, lightly crushed berries. It's weighted, and the berries' juices soak into the bread; unmolded, it's as beautiful as it is delicious.

Another favorite summertime stale-bread dish is panzanella, Italian bread-and-tomato salad. It's something I make every summer, whether I have stale bread on hand or have to deliberately leave some bread out for a few hours.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

PANZANELLA

There are probably as many versions of this salad as there are cooks who make it. It's a classic way to use stale bread. Tomatoes, onion, basil, red-wine vinegar, and olive oil are the other ingredients always included in panzanella in Italy. Some cooks soak the bread in water and then squeeze it out, others sprinkle the bread with water, and still others let the tomatoes' juices do the job. The choice at least partially depends on the degree of staleness. The proportions also vary widely, as do other additions: Cucumber is the most common, but all sorts of other ingredients appear, from celery to olives to anchovies. The additional ingredients should be used sparingly so that they don't overwhelm the primary flavors. Use the following recipe as a guide, not something to which you must strictly adhere, both in terms of ingredients and proportions — a leftover hard roll and a single luscious ripe tomato could be the basis for panzanella for one or two people. Like many of the best and simplest recipes, the quality of the ingredients is crucial — this is a recipe to make only when you have wonderful tomatoes and good bread.

1/2 pound stale country bread (Sourdough or good-quality

French or Italian bread works well, but it shouldn't be

too dense — heavy whole-grain breads or breads such

as pumpernickel or rye can make the dish leaden. Light

sandwich breads or breads such as challah will be mushy

and awful. My favorite bread for panzanella is

Incredibly Delicious' pepper Parmesan loaf.)

Approximately 1 cup water or juices from the tomatoes

2 cups seeded tomatoes, cut into bite-size chunks, peeled

or not according to preference

1 cup thinly sliced red onion, loosely packed

1/4 cup extravirgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

(more or less to taste)

1/2 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Additional ingredients (optional): thinly sliced seeded cucumber, minced garlic (add to the vinaigrette), pitted black or green olives, thinly sliced celery, scallions (instead of the onion), anchovies, parsley (instead of or in addition to the basil), crumbled feta or shaved Parmesan or Asiago (not traditional but very good)

Tear the bread into bite-sized pieces and place them in a large bowl. Toss the bread with the water or tomato juices and let it stand for about half an hour. You may need more or less bread, depending on its staleness. The water should be absorbed by the bread. If it still seems dry, add a little more water. While the bread is standing, dissolve 2 tablespoons salt in a bowl of water and add the sliced onion. After 30 minutes, rinse the onions under cold running water and squeeze to remove excess moisture. Add the onion, tomatoes, and any other ingredients to the bowl of bread.

Rinse the onions under cold running water and squeeze them to remove excess moisture. Add the onion, tomatoes, and any other ingredients to the bowl. Whisk together the oil, vinegar, and half of the basil, then drizzle the mixture over the contents of the bowl. Toss the ingredients gently but thoroughly. You can serve the panzanella immediately, but it is best to let it stand for 30 minutes to 1 hour to let the flavors mingle. Either way, sprinkle the remaining basil over the top just before serving. Serves four to eight.

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