Before we start, no, this is not the same as the by now ubiquitous Tuscan panzanella. There are some crucial differences. For starters, although this is a perfect way to use up leftover bread, it is also good enough to merit buying a decent loaf on purpose. Panzanella quite frankly isn’t. Above all, here the bread is toasted and left in chunks, adding not only extra texture, but extra flavour. This detail also puts it in the food-for-grown-ups category, whereas panzanella should clearly be spooned into the uncomprehending mouths of Florentine infants. Like panzanella, however, pane a caponata boasts a beguilingly simple recipe. Beguilingly because, as with any minimalist combo (a dry Martini, a pizza margherita), you have to use the best ingredients you can find, or it will disappoint. On the other hand, if you get it right, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
In an ideal world (and the other day, food-wise, that is where I was), you’ll be using Sicilian rustic bread; Sicilian tomatoes at the height of ripeness; fresh, grassy, single estate Sicilian olive oil; fragrant purple garlic from Nubia; basil from my pot on the terrace and sea salt from Trapani. Well, if we want to split hairs, not absolutely ideal. The tomatoes were Sicilian, but all I had at hand were the cherry variety. You really want something bigger and juicier. And by the way, make sure you also use the juice that is released when chopping the tomatoes.
Presuming you have decent raw materials, this salad is practically fool-proof, not to mention quick. You can prepare the tomatoes, peel the garlic and boil the water for dunking the bread while the bread toasts, and still have time for a glass of wine.
The original recipe uses chopped garlic, but I prefer to rub the cloves on the hot toast, which is then dipped in hot water, leaving only a faint, but discernible sweet garlicky aftertaste. Basil is also, strangely, missing from the traditional version, but adds colour and aroma, so in it goes. Chilli, meanwhile, is an “authentic” addition (but would have found its way in anyway). All three, of course – garlic, basil and chilli – are basically there to support the main act – the bread, tomatoes and oil.
The quantities are for one, since I was eating on my own (hence the desire for something quick and simple). Just multiply as necessary (apart from the garlic: one clove is enough for two servings). And eat now, with the last of the season’s tomato crop (at least here in Sicily), before autumn seriously kicks in …
- 4 thickish slices of day(or two)-old rustic bread (about 80g)
- 200g tomatoes, chopped, and their juice
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- A few good glugs of extra virgin olive oil, as good as you can lay your hands on
- A small handful of basil leaves
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Chili – fresh, dried or infused oil (optional)
- Bake the bread in a hot oven (200°C) until well toasted (5-10 minutes).
- Rub the bread with the garlic clove.
- Dunk the bread in a bowl of hot water, for a second (you want the crust to retain a slight crunchiness) and place in the serving dish. Cut into largish chunks. Add all the other ingredients and mix. Be generous with the olive oil. In fact, be generous with the seasoning in general. Leave to rest for ten minutes. Stir again, and dig in.