Peasant food for free.

I grew up in a beautiful little town nestled among the Chesapeake Bay’s many tributary rivers, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In this part of the world, strangers greet you on the street, one ‘warshes their clothes in wudder’, and summer meals primarily consist of crabs, corn, tomatoes, and Old Bay. I miss my hometown in many ways, but never more than when warm weather hits and an intense craving for salted, spicy tomatoes eaten at a picnic table stirs within me. I frequently find myself daydreaming about my waterfront homeland while walking down the hot and smoggy streets of Brooklyn. So what’s a girl to do when the summertime blues hit? There’s only one solution: eat more tomatoes.

Ripe and juicy tomatoes.

This meal came about on the cheap due to several fortunate events. A few days ago, we received a shipment of Bufala Burrata at my work. Burrata is basically a mozzarella ball filled with cream and cheese curds, aka the most decadent, delicious summer treat. Buffalo milk is sweet and luscious, high in fat, and contains zero lactose (that’s right, intolerant friends, you can eat it! And you should!). Put the two together and you pretty much get the perfect summer cheese. It was a slow day, and so when it came ’round to lunch time, my co-worker and I decided to make a traditional Burrata plate to share. He bought the cheese, bread, and prosciutto while I was left in charge of the tomatoes and basil. When I returned from the market he had even thrown into the deal a couple of specialty Italian sodas. I wish I’d been able to properly document the ensuing feast, but we ate it too fast. Long story short, I ended up with a beautiful, hothouse heirloom tomato and a few basil branches left over.

The simplest of dressings, often the best.

The next day, I was a friend donated to me an absurd amount of arugula, pea shoots, mint, and the most glorious, weighty ball of fresh mozzarella I’ve ever seen. God bless generous friends. So, with a leftover loaf of bread from work tonight, I set to work making panzanella, also known as Italian bread salad. Italians love their bread (with good reason) and hate to see it go to waste. So, when a loaf goes stale, they find a new purpose for it in croutons or bread crumbs. But, when the heat is too high for making crostini, the stale bread goes into a big bowl with oil and vinegar and other salad-y things to create panzanella. It’s peasant summer food, and it’s awesome. This isn’t a recipe, per se. Think of it as a loose guideline. Don’t have arugula? Spinach works, or even some lightly sautéed kale. Tomatoes not ripe enough? How about a red pepper, raw or roasted. Add garlic, or onions, or whatever sounds good. Just be sure to make the mozzarella a good one, and share with hungry, sweaty friends. Old Bay never hurts, either.

A pile of summer.

Simple Panzanella
Serves 4
1 loaf day-old bread, roughly torn into bite-sized pieces
2 large, ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 cup loosely packed, hand-torn arugula
2 sprigs of basil, chiffonaded*
1/2 lb fresh mozzarella, cubed
A few good glugs of olive oil
A splash or two of Balsamic vinegar
Some Salt
Some Pepper
Some Old Bay, if you feel like getting all ‘Murrlann’ ’bout it.

 *To chiffonade: stack leaves, roll into a burrito, and thinly slice across to create ribbons of leaves. This works for all leafy things, especially delicate herbs that bruise easily. It’s also very pretty.

Put all ingredients in a big bowl. Toss gently. Refrigerate, covered,  for at least an hour or up to eight. Make it the night before a picnic or beach day and you’ll have thankful friends.