This week, I’ve been back in the UK. There was my friend’s joyously happy wedding day and I was very grateful I’d found an unopened waterproof eyeliner in my make up bag because woah turned out I needed it – the sniffles from me and my friends during the speeches could have been harmonised. Then, from there back to Somerset, to unsurprisingly better weather than in Toulouse, a movie night in a church, and a bit of home comfort, including this halloumi and blistered tomato panzanella salad.
Panzanella, the Tuscan bread salad, has always struck me as a bowl full of colour; you are certainly eating the rainbow when this salad is in town. The same can be said for this UK sojourn, although less edible, more visual – a feast for the eyes, a phrase not usually uttered about England. The milling guests at Abbie and Chris’ wedding gleamed in the sun like splashes of the rainbow (except me as, of course, for some reason I wore black), and all week, the sun has been a shimmering dot in this endless blue ribbon of sky.
Colour is following me everywhere, even in the Pimm’s I’ve been eagerly knocking back, thanks to the obligatory strawberries, blueberries and orange segments garnishing the top. But the most colourful of all was the film we watched on Thursday night at the local church.
This community cinema is low-key to say the least – a projector and bar of various wines and gins and tonics are included, although viewers need to bring their own bum-support (in our case, garden furniture cushions) because church pews may have been good for the constitution back in the day, but most of us like to have feeling in our nether regions.
The film of the evening was Everything Everywhere All At Once. It won quite a few Oscars, you may have heard of it? My parents hadn’t, so I coerced them to go with me: I needed to critique this year’s Oscar winner and my parents needed to keep me company. Well, what can I say about a movie dissecting philosophical and quantum metaphysical themes that most of us in the church-cinema could barely understand? The main character plunges into the metaverse, away from her dull normality at her family’s laundrette to be sucked into different parallel worlds, a splintered reality of swirling colour, bagels and googly eyes (you need to watch it).
I left giddy and delighted! What an epic journey to discover self-worth! (although, why did this film win so many Oscars exactly? Did Jamie Lee Curtis even do much? If you’ve seen it, please let me know.) Yet everyone else in the cinema, hysterical giggles escaping their lips, had no idea what had been going on for the last two hours. It was a vibrant, colourful rollercoaster on hard wooden chairs and no phone signal, so my mum couldn’t even distract herself by reading the news when the plot spiralled off, losing her along the way.
So, this week has been colourful to say the least. And the food had to stay on theme.
Panzanella: the perfect summer salad
A plate of salad can seem a bit… bare. Personally, I like choice on my table – a pick ‘n’ mix so everyone can fill their plates and stomachs according to their tastes. However, a panzanella is essentially the equivalent of a greedy child’s bag of sweets – everything’s already in there, there’s no room for negotiation.
In the cafes were I’ve worked, we almost always added panzanella to the menus in the summer. These cafes were tag-along businesses to bakeries, so my job as chef was to find dishes that helped us get through all the bread that was routinely heaved in and out of the ovens. My friend and colleague Sam came up with a perfect panzanella, full of tomatoes, caper berries, quick pickled red onions, olives and day-old bread, and I loved it so much I took the recipe to my next cafe/bakery job in Manchester.
Now, without a paying public to cook for, I make an Italian panzanella every summer for myself and Gaylord to eat on our terrace, this time with our never-ending supply of baguette. As I ranted in last month’s newsletter, some dud baguettes that really shouldn’t be eaten let alone sold are crying out for moisture so a panzanella is the perfect solution.
So, what exactly is panzanella?
If you’re anything like me, and you love to raid the fridge for lunch (or you find yourself stuck with ripening leftovers and no inspiration), panzanella is the dish you need. Essentially it’s stale bread cubes and and wedges of ripe tomatoes soaked in extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, maybe with some garlic, fresh basil leaves and onions in there too. The bread slurps up all the liquid, its sharp corners and crusts mellowing until groggy and somewhat soggy. If you ever needed to define the word ‘rustic’, look no further than a panzanella.
I couldn’t take much credit for the panzanella at the cafes, and again, I don’t deserve any honour for this halloumi and blistered tomato one – this is all down to the marvellous Tara O’Brady. I made tweaks here and there to her panzanella salad with grilled halloumi, added avocado because we had a willing and ripe one flaunting itself at me, and feel free to add capers, olives, pickled red onions, anything vibrant, because those slumped chunks of bread can support any flavour.
So, start the summer by eating the rainbow, no matter rustic and lumpy and bumpy it may be.
Halloumi and Blistered Tomato Panzanella
For the dressing
- 75 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- ½ lemon zested and ½ of its juice
- 1 garlic clove
- A small handful herbs I used basil and chives
- 1 small shallot
For the salad
- 200 g crusty bread day-old or stale
- A big slug extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 block halloumi
- 3 cooked beetroots
- ½ ripe avocado
- 2 full vines mixed cherry tomatoes
- A handful salad leaves mixed green and purple
- Basil for garnish
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- To make the dressing, pour the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar into a jug, along with the lemon zest and juice. Blend it with a hand blender until emulsified. Crush the garlic, finely chop the herbs and the shallot and add it all to the jug. Season with a little salt. Blend everything together until the dressing is lightly green.
- Rip the baguette into 1 to 1½-inch sized chunks and toss them in a big bowl and cover with a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and the 1 tbsp red wine vinegar. Sprinkle with salt and toss everything together to soften the bread.
- Slice the halloumi. Chop the beetroots and avocado into bite-sized pieces, and rinse the cherry tomatoes and salad leaves.
- Heat a non-stick frying pan over high heat. When hot, add the halloumi slices. Fry until speckled gold, around 2-3 minutes, then flip and repeat on the other side. Remove from the frying pan onto a plate to cool.
- In the same frying pan, place it back over the heat. Add a splash of olive oil and throw in the tomatoes. They will start sizzling immediately. Sprinkle with salt and sauté in the oil until they are blistered and the skins are bursting. Remove from the heat.
- Rip the halloumi slices into chunks. In a salad bowl, toss together the soaked bread, the halloumi, beetroot, avocado, blistered cherry tomatoes and most of the salad leaves. Dress with most of the dressing – you probably won't need it all – and toss together again. Add the remaining salad leaves and basil leaves to garnish. Leave to sit for 5 minutes before serving so the bread can soak up the vinaigrette.