Want to know what is better than having your own garden? Having a neighbor who goes out of town and asks you to tend to theirs!
I wish I was a better gardener, but if you have followed my writing over the years, you know that, sadly, gardening is not a top priority of mine. You would assume with all the cooking and consuming I participate in it would naturally be part of my program. However, I am an instant gratification gal who lacks patience with weeds. Hence, when I get the opportunity to take care of someone else's glorious garden, it's like going to the candy store.
So, last weekend, my daughter and I headed over to the neighbor's to take care of their chores while they were away on vacation. Bowl in hand, I knew we would be harvesting a few treats. First, the lack of weeds and lovely rows of producing vegetation annoyed me. Who has time for this? Then, as we starting poking around, I began to get excited. Tomatoes of various shapes and colors, squash, zucchini, eggplant, rainbow colors of chard, peppers, and more were hiding under the protection of the happy, healthy plants. We set about picking what was ripe, popping a few sun-ripened tomatoes into our mouths, letting them melt before commenting on how each one was just a tiny bit better than the last.
It was like a treasure hunt. My daughter and I found ourselves giggling over who found what first and bragging over who discovered the perfect tomato. Practicing serious restraint, we continued to fill up our bowl with a beautiful bounty and my mind started to kick in to overdrive. What am I going to do with all this amazing produce? It doesn't take much to excite me when it comes to menu planning. My downfall is actually keeping it simple when I get too enthusiastic.
First, my mind goes to ratatouille. Not the movie with the cute, talented dancing rat — the comforting French vegetable dish of cooked various summer veggies. It's simple, hearty and honestly one of my favorites. It can be served hot (my preference for anything) or cold and as a main dish, a side dish or an appetizer. It's a recipe to experiment with, for sure, and a valuable one to have in your repertoire if you don't already.
I get excited and set about prepping in my mind. My husband asks what I am planning on doing with all the fresh-picked veggies and I declare, "Ratatouille!" Husband frowns and says, "In this heat? Ugh." Trying to soften the blow he states, "Your panzanella is my favorite." Not only am I easily flattered, I am easily distracted with food ideas. Panzanella it is!
Detouring from ratatouille and the Provence region of France, we head over to Italy and begin prepping for panzanella. Panzanella is truly a delightful summer salad treat. Eye-catching and beautiful, it is a must if you have not tried it. Panzanella, an Italian-style bread salad, has a little bit of something for everyone. Its foundation is chunks of rustic bread (preferably day old) that soak up a light dressing of olive oil and vinegar and highlights the ripest vegetables of summer. I rarely make it any other time of year, as it falls short when vegetables are not at their best.
There are countless recipes for panzanella; however, I have altered one over the years and have stuck with it. If you are not a fan of soggy yet tasty bread you may want to regress to the ratatouille. I have to warn you, though, it's the seasoned, soaked bread bites that my family fights over.
Panzanella does require a bit of chopping, but don't get carried away. This dish is best served rustic and chunky — not perfect. You can simply use a good olive oil and a light vinegar but I prefer to make a vinaigrette with a little more flavor with the addition of mustard and garlic. Dare you to not nibble on the homemade croutons!