Panzanella

I was going to make panzanella, and I wanted plump, voluptuous, vine-ripe tomatoes, warm from the sun, with winey juices and the sweet-tart flavors that only good soil, careful tending and hours of sunlight can create.  Unfortunately, in the summer of 2002, local produce wasn’t easy to find in Southeast Texas.  I wanted my restaurant to be Beaumont’s answer to Chez Panisse.  It sounds funny, but I really wanted it.  I was convinced that we had terroir in Southeast Texas too.  Everyone I knew had grown up eating catfish and gulf shrimp from our local waters, tomatoes, cucuzza squash, and figs from backyard gardens, dewberries and blackberries from early summer picking expeditions, pears and citrus from neighborhood trees.  You have to stop things from growing in Southeast Texas.  Now, I wanted homegrown tomatoes for my restaurant, but the only two options for produce suppliers sold trucked-in goods from far away.  Driving 90 miles each way to Houston was not a viable option.  The larger-scale local farmers I could find only grew rice, rice, and more rice.  Those tomatoes were out there, I knew it.  I started driving past houses on the edge of town slowly, looking for rows of tomatoes–I had the idea that I could find a home gardener with enough bounty to sell.  I became desperate, almost willing to sneak over fences in the dead of night to steal tomatoes like a possum, when I hit paydirt.

Behind the Cracker Barrel on I10 was a modest ranch house with junky cars and yapping weenie dogs in the driveway, and . . . row after row after row of tomatoes.  I squealed into the driveway, kicking up gravel and dust in my haste to beat out any other buyers (which of course, there were none).  An old fella came out to meet me, legs of his jumpsuit hastily stuffed into rubber boots, dogs roiling around his ankles.  “Shut up, Princess, shut up, Tiny,” he snapped.  He came towards me with an outstretched arm, tomato in hand, and shoved it under my nose.  His eyes gleamed with the zeal of a crusader.  “Try it!  Take a bite right out of it, like an apple!”  I’m not even sure I was completely out of my car, but I did as I was told.  Tomato juice ran down my chin and my eyes closed in rapture.  I opened them to see him staring at me intently.  “See?”  he said, as though we had been in the midst of an argument and there was no refuting him.  “Yes,” I said.  “You’re right.”

Every time I came, the routine was the same.  Before I was even out of the car, he stomped my way, and shoved something in my face, slicing okra with a rusty old pocketknife, “Bet you haven’t had this heirloom okra–good enough to eat raw, crunchy!  Here, eat it!”  Before long, I started sneaking away from the restaurant between lunch and dinner to visit the little farm.  He’d sold the portion of his land that bordered the freeway, and now he was rich, but you’d never know it.  I’m not even sure he knew it, or remembered who I was between visits.  He was consumed with love for his vegetables, though, and referred to his plants and their produce as “she.”  Parting the leaves of a squash vine, he’d say, “She got a little too much water early on, see how these leaves are yella?  But she’s coming around and see these little bitty squash here?  They’re gonna be real, real purty.”  We stood between the rows, shoes caked with mud, heat and humidity bearing down on us, and I realized here was a kindred spirit, someone maybe even crazier than I was about food and flavor, and where it comes from, and I couldn’t get enough.  Now, years later, the rows at Rain Lily are heavy with tomatoes, and Stephanie is just as consumed with love for everything growing, and I still can’t get enough.

Panzanella

1 loaf ciabatta, cut into cubes

olive oil

salt

tomatoes, a mixture of sizes, shapes and colors

1 small red onion, slivered

1 bunch basil

1 clove garlic, minced

4 Tbs. red wine vinegar

1/3-1/2 c. olive oil

Preheat oven to 400.  Place ciabatta cubes in a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Toss until bread cubes are evenly coated.  Place in a single layer on a large baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden but still partially soft and chewy.  While bread is baking, Cut tomatoes into various shapes and place in bowl used for tossing bread.  Add slivered red onion.  In a small bowl, whisk vinegar, garlic and olive oil until emulsified.  Season with salt and pepper if desired.  Pour over tomatoes and onions.  When bread cubes are ready, remove from oven and while still hot, pour on top of tomatoes.  Let sit for 15 minutes without stirring so tomatoes release their juices.  Add torn basil leaves, drizzle with vinaigrette and toss everything together.

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18 Responses to “Panzanella”

  1. Sydney Rubin

    I’d been meaning to post a comment to your blog for sometime, but have been too busy trying out all the recipes you share using the fresh produce you deliver to my door. But this little story today finally prompted me to take the time to say the only thing more delicious than your recipes is your writing — words which nourishes beyond any meal. Thanks for all of it.

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      Thank you so much–I am so glad you enjoy it–warms my heart!

      Reply
  2. Frannyo

    When we lived there, I put an ad on Beaumont Craigslist that I’d buy any local produce people wanted to sell. I met some really great characters that way – one guy was perfect, a retiree from one of the refineries who lived over by the LNVA canal past Parkdale mall. He always had on the same orange jumpsuit and he would stuff me full before I could leave. I’m QUITE sure it wasn’t organic, but everything sure tasted good just the same.

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      I remember that! I was so amazed at the time that he was perusing craigslist–that was pretty cutting-edge then.

      Reply
  3. Rebecca

    Beautiful story and photos! This girl from Orange has also stumbled upon that little farm behind the Cracker Barrel! My mom and I – always on the hunt for figs in mid-summer – discovered the same old fella and his bountiful fig trees. Will have to make the trip home to try his tomatoes!

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      I hope he’s still there–I am headed east next week & plan on stopping in to see!

      Reply
  4. Nicole

    Those tomatoes are absolutely gorgeous! What varieties are they?

    By the way–I love your little stories, as always. Fantastic!

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      Thanks! I’m terrible at getting the tomato names right. I know right now on the farm we have purple cherokee, prudens purple, celebrity, green zebra black cherries & sungold cherry tomatoes. My favorite is the mortgage lifter!

      Reply
  5. Tracy

    I love that story!! What a character he sounds – so glad you remember the details of the “she” plants. You are the only blog that I keep on reading!! I will make this recipe. They do a good panzanella at Asti with grilled chicken too. Off to the farmers market tomorrow.

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      So much fun to see you the other day–doesn’t happen often enough these days!

      Reply
  6. Christy Seals

    Loved the story, as always. Made this over the weekend, and my family devoured. Sped read the recipe, so used 1/2 c. of olive oil on the bread, which, when you’re using the Texas Olive Ranch Olive Oil, is never a bad thing, but I would use less next time. Used a mix of juliets and yellow cherries, and it was soooooo good.

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      I am going to try it this weekend with grilled bread!

      Reply
  7. Katherine

    Your story is a sweet reminder of my Grampa who also loved his vegetable garden tucked away between his rose bushes and the clotheslines in the small ’40’s town of Ontario, CA. Such great tomatoes and squash. We played ping pong while he weeded and watered, then ate everything. Well, except my sister – a picky eater- poor thing!

    Reply
    • farmhousetable

      thank you! have loved keeping up with your travels this summer!

      Reply

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