Spring Panzanella Salad
This bright green spring salad is one of my favorites. I love panzanella salads in general (who wouldn’t love a bread salad?!), and this version from Michael Chiarello is really awesome. Thank god I finally like asparagus and peas – if you’d served this to me as a kid I’d have probably made a wise-crack and pushed the plate away. The only thing I would have considered eating was the bread, and even that would have freaked me out since it’s coated in an asparagus puree.
All that’s changed, and now I love asparagus. But one thing that hasn’t changed since my childhood is my love of springtime. Even though we don’t suffer through a bad winter here in Los Angeles, the winters of my youth still haunt me! That first peek of green, whether it was grass, flower or tree buds was an amazing sight. Now that I’m not such a picky eater (well, okay, I guess some might see it that way because of the foods I choose not to eat – but it isn’t because I don’t like them), I can really appreciate the different fresh foods that each season has to offer. Having lived in LA for almost seven and a half years, I can finally feel the change of seasons here, and one of the biggest indications of where we’re at season-wise is what’s at the farmers’ market.
This is definitely the time of year for asparagus, asparagus and more asparagus! This salad is packed with it, and it’s so delicious. There’s also a hint of basil and a mild onion taste, plus some sweetness from the peas. Lemon juice brightens up the whole thing, and the asparagus-puree-drenched croutons are a great contrast to peppery arugula. You can use spinach if you prefer, but I like the bold flavor of arugula here.
Veganizing this one is ridiculously easy, and again, it just kills me that Chef Chiarello was so stumped about making a vegan meal on Top Chef. For the sake of convenience I’m going to write the recipe out here with the minor changes I’ve made as well as my notes.
Spring Panzanella Salad
2 pounds medium asparagus
1/2 cup freshly chopped basil leaves
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Sea salt, preferably gray salt and freshly ground black pepper
Panzanella Croutons, recipe follows
2 cups fresh or frozen English peas, boiled until tender and drained [I just thawed frozen peas]
1 cup thinly sliced green onion or spring onion
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, divided
1/2 head radicchio, ribbon-cut, soaked, drained, and dried
2 cup whole baby spinach leaves or arugula
Holding an asparagus spear in both hands, bend the spear until it breaks naturally at the point where the spear becomes tough. Discard the tough end. Repeat with the remaining asparagus. Cut off the tender tips and reserve.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus tips and cook briefly, just until they lose their raw taste, about 2-3 minutes. Lift them out with a sieve or skimmer and let cool. Add the remaining portion of the asparagus spears and cook until tender enough to puree, about 5 minutes or so, then drain well.
Put the asparagus spears, basil, 6 tablespoons of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste in a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth.
In a large bowl, combine the croutons, asparagus tips, peas, and green or spring onion. Add some of the asparagus puree and toss to coat well. Add more puree as needed to coat lightly and evenly. Add 3 tablespoons of the lemon juice and toss again. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then make an even layer of the mixture on a platter.
In another bowl, combine the radicchio and spinach or arugula. Dress with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, the remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss well, then mound on top of the dressed croutons. Serve immediately.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut the crusts off the bread with a serrated knife, and use a chef’s knife to cube the bread. Put the bread cubes into a very large bowl.
Melt the margarine, and pour it over the bread cubes, tossing well to coat all the pieces. Sprinkle the nutritional yeast over the cubes, and toss again. Spread the cubes out evenly onto two baking sheets .
Bake, stirring once or twice, until the croutons are crisp and lightly colored on the outside but still soft within, about 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool. Store in an airtight container.
Notes: If you use the radicchio, you don’t have to soak it. You can slice it, and rinse it with very cold water. I substituted Belgian endive to save an extra trip to a second store, and it worked just fine.
I like to use more lemon juice than called for on the greens. If you’re not serving this to a crowd, just dress the amount of greens you want to eat since they won’t keep as leftovers, though the rest of the salad (bread part) will. This makes a ton, so toss everything together in a really, really big bowl. Enjoy!