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    This red pepper and zucchini salad with burrata breaks a few rules

    G Daniela Galarza

    THE WASHINGTON POST – After I wrote about panzanella the other week, I heard from a few readers who wanted to set the record straight. It seems that the panzanella with white beans broke a few rules*.

    There are good reasons for rules. In the kitchen, they can teach us efficiency, as I wrote about recently, and how to coax flavour out of all kinds of ingredients. Rules provide a helpful matrix around which we can learn.

    And they generally come from years or, in the case of panzanella, centuries of experience. Panzanella is among a collection of European recipes developed ages ago that were meant to use up old, stale bread.

    A precursor to panzanella was pan lavato, or washed bread, which appears in the Decameron, first published in 1353. In the 1500s, Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, a portrait painter better known as il Bronzino, wrote a poem about a salad that sounds a lot like panzanella: “Whoever wants to cross over the stars/ eats the bread and eats a/ salad of chopped onion… with cucumber… and basil… wins every other pleasure of this life.”

    Bits of meat were added to lots of dishes in medieval Europe, and tomatoes didn’t appear in panzanella recipes until after the 16th Century, when they were brought back from the Americas. Besides, as its name suggests, panzanella is really all about the bread. Preparing the bread for a proper panzanella is a process.

    Roasted red pepper and zucchini salad with burrata. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

    According to reader Viola Buitoni, who was born in Rome and raised in Italy but is now based in San Francisco, the bread for panzanella should be stale and hand torn or very roughly cut – never cubed. Then, it’s dipped or lightly soaked and finally squeezed out.

    “During the squeezing the bread will naturally divide into uneven sized chunks and crumbs,” Buitoni wrote.

    She advises against ciabatta, because it’s too airy, and instead recommends dense, saltless bread: “In other words, the bread of Tuscany and Umbria.” Finally, you should pay attention to the order in which you add ingredients. “After the squeezed bread and various veggies are mixed (tomatoes, cucumber, torn basil and a wild herb like arugula or purslane) and seasoned with salt, sprinkling the bread with vinegar is next.

    Only when the vinegar is suited to one’s taste does the olive oil come in, but not before,” Buitoni said. “The bread has to drink the vinegar first.”

    This recipe, for a salad of roasted red peppers, zucchini, burrata and bread, follows many of Buitoni’s rules. Stale bread is preferred to toasted – though, if all you have is fresh bread, toasted will be fine. The bread should be roughly torn. And, finally, the bread and vegetables should be allowed to “drink the vinegar” before the oil is added. Keep these tips in mind as you make the salad for yourself. Then, feel free to go off script, making a salad that suits you and yours best.

    On the other hand, I don’t think there is only one so-called true way to make any dish. There are recipes and general methods and long-held ideas. There is history, and it’s crucial that cooks learn and respect that context.

    But within almost any rule is the space to break it. After you read this or any recipe or watch someone make a dish on a screen, you get to do whatever you want – you get to make a recipe the way you like it. But as my editor Jim said, you should know how to follow a rule before you can effectively break it.

    ROASTED RED PEPPER AND ZUCCHINI SALAD WITH BURRATA

    Inspired by the combination of juicy tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, this salad subs in roasted red bell peppers and zucchini. The peppers add sweetness and the zucchini lends its vegetal flavour and moisture. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil – plus salt and pepper – are the only seasonings needed. Served with or without prosciutto on the side, it makes a fine summer meal. If you’re pressed for time, use jarred roasted red bell peppers instead of roasting your own.

    Facing a glut of tomatoes? Use those instead of the bell peppers and zucchini.

    Want to skip the bread? Go for it. Not a cheese eater? Try mixing in a cup of canned (and drained and rinsed) or cooked chickpeas, and let them marinate with the vegetables.

    INGREDIENTS

    Two red bell peppers (about 12 ounces total)
    One medium zucchini (about 10 ounces total), halved lengthwise and chopped
    Fine salt
    One tablespoon balsamic vinegar, plus more as needed
    Three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
    One teaspoon crushed Calabrian chilis or chili oil (optional)
    Two large slices crusty bread, stale or toasted
    Six to 10 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced, or burrata, preferably at room temperature
    Freshly cracked black pepper
    Handful of fresh basil leaves

    DIRECTIONS

    Position a rack about six inches from the broiling element and preheat the broiler to high. On a rimmed baking sheet, roast the bell peppers until blackened on one side, three to five minutes. Using tongs, rotate them and broil until the peppers blacken all around. (This may also be done on a grill or on a gas stovetop).

    Immediately transfer to a bowl and cover tightly to let peppers steam for about 15 minutes.

    In a large bowl, combine the zucchini and a large pinch of salt. Let sit until the zucchini’s liquid starts to pool at the bottom of the bowl, about 10 minutes.

    Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, discard the stem and seeds before peeling the peppers over the zucchini, letting the pepper juices run into the bowl (some of the seeds may fall into the bowl, and this is OK; discard the skins).

    Roughly chop the skinned peppers and add them to the bowl with the zucchini.

    Stir in the vinegar, allowing it to soak into the vegetables. Roughly tear up the bread and add it to the vegetables, tossing lightly so it starts to soften before adding the olive oil. Stir again, then taste, and adjust with additional salt, vinegar and/or olive oil, as desired. Stir in the Calabrian chilis, if using. You should have about two cups of salad.

    Place about one cup of salad on each plate or bowl and top with several slices of fresh mozzarella or a ball of burrata, a few basil leaves and black pepper. Repeat with the remaining salad, cheese and basil. Serve at room temperature.

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