Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tomato and cucumber salad with cornbread croutons

heirloom tomatoes

My first experience with panzanella, or bread salad, was at a late summer outdoor gathering many years ago in Texas. At the time, I was a little suspicious of the salad, as I thought that the large chunks of bread would be strange and soggy as they mingled with the juicy tomatoes and crisp cucumbers. But actually, it turned out to be brilliant. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys sopping up oil and vinegar with crusty bread, then this was your kind of dish.

When I heard about cornbread salad, my assumption was that it would recreate that Italian tomato and cucumber salad that I loved, with cornbread croutons standing in for the day-old bread. When I finally encountered it, however, I discovered that the Southern dish known as cornbread salad is usually layers of beans, corn, tomatoes, cheese, mayonnaise and, of course, crumbled cornbread served in a large, glass bowl.

cornbread croutons

That cornbread salad was good, but not exactly what I had in mind. Because of the heat, I was in the mood for something less rich that could showcase the glory of summertime tomatoes. My ideal salad would be lightly dressed tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with a handful of cornbread croutons.

While doing some reading, I stumbled upon a Frank Stitt recipe that almost created the salad I had been thinking about. It was the classic panzanella with only one change—he used cornbread instead of yeast bread. This was a good starting point, but I decided that if I was going to use cornbread I might as well make the rest of the salad taste Texan, too.

To make the transformation, I replaced the bell peppers with jalapeños, the basil with cilantro, and made a simple vinaigrette with just olive oil, lime juice, cumin and cayenne. For my salad, I went with colorful heirloom tomatoes because they remind me of the tomatoes my grandma grows at her farm. (Though if you don’t have access to heirloom tomatoes, any ripe in-season tomato will work just as well.) And to make the salad a bit more decadent, I showered the tomatoes and cucumbers with salty Cotija cheese. It all came together beautifully.

But the final piece of the dish—the cornbread croutons—ended up being a bit trickier. On my first attempt, I added them when the salad was marinating, but they soon turned to mush. After some experimenting, I learned the best way for them to stay solid was to add them right before serving. The cornbread croutons will still soak up some of the dressing, but they take on the bright fire of the jalapeños, which is always a welcome thing.

tomato cucumber salad cornbread croutons

While cornbread is what inspired this salad, it’s the juicy, sweet tomatoes that are the true star. Besides the fresh flavors, what I love about this salad is how quickly it comes together, making it great for either a barbecue or a weeknight supper. But if you decide to make this, much like pico de gallo, you’ll want to make it now when tomatoes are at their best and brightest.

Tomato and cucumber salad with cornbread croutons
1 cucumber, peeled and cubed
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more taste
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, seeded and cubed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 medium red onion, diced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 jalapeños, seeds and stems removed, diced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 cups cubed (1-inch) cornbread (preferably day old)
1/4 cup Cotija cheese, crumbled

Sprinkle the cubed cucumber with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and allow to sit refrigerated for at least 45 minutes so some of the liquid can be extracted.

Meanwhile, combine tomatoes, garlic, onion, jalapeños and cilantro. Whisk together lime juice, olive oil, cumin and cayenne and stir into tomatoes. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange cornbread cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake uncovered for 15- 20 minutes, or until dry and crisp.

Drain the cucumbers and toss with the tomatoes. Adjust seasonings and add salt to taste. (Wait to salt the salad until after adding the cucumbers because the cucumbers will be salty.) Top with crumbled Cotija cheese, and serve with cornbread croutons on the side, since the croutons will get soggy if they sit in the salad for too long.

Yield: 4 servings

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leela said...

i'm a fellow homesick texan (from austin, living in portland, oregon now) and also made a cornbread panzanella this summer -
mine had a buttermilk/herb dressing and was more of a full meal salad, but i like the way you think. also, i've been reading your blog forever and it always helps me to be a little less homesick. thanks.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Leela--Love your take on the dish! And thank you so much for the kind words.

Kathryn | Dramatic Pancake said...

I love the flavor combination here (the spicy lime vinaigrette, the sweet tomatoes, the salty cheese) and I'll eat cornbread with anything!

Heather @ chiknpastry said...

this is exactly what I wanted to make earlier this week, but I didn't have a bit of cornmeal in my house. I settled for the original recipe I'd clipped last year and make an heirloom salad with buttermilk dressing and regular ol' bread croutons. it was good, but i still want the cornbread :).

Nisrine M. said...

I love the salad but the cornbread croutons are what's making me really hungry right now. Beautiful.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Kathryn--I'm with you, I'll eat cornbread with everything as well!

Heather--Sounds like you need to make some cornbread! Though that heirloom salad with buttermilk dressing must have been pretty amazing, too.

Nisrine--Thank you! You can never go wrong with cornbread!

BillG said...

Love the Texas twist on this. Frank Stitt is a hero of Southern cooking and a really nice guy to boot.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Bill--I've never met him, but a friend of mine works for him and says the same thing. I need to take a trip to Birmingham so I can eat at his restaurants.

Lyns said...

Very interesting! I made panzanella as a poolside snack this summer, and it was a big hit. The fabulous Sarah Foster has a cornbread panzanella recipe in one of her cookbooks...I think it's in the original Fosters Market Cookbook.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Lynn--I'll have to check out her recipe!

Stacey! said...

My grandma used to make a cucumber salad all the time... just like the kind they have at Luby's! Sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, and green bell peppers, then tossed with either vinegar or Italian dressing. So easy, but so good. I can't wait to try this! I feel like she would love it if she were still around! Thanks!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Stacey--Your grandma's salad sounds so refreshing. What a wonderful memory of her, and I bet she would have enjoyed this one, too.

Janus said...

Whenever I make cornbread, it comes out moist enough that I don't think I could ever make croutons out of it. If I tried cutting it as small as you mention, it would self-destruct into crumbs. What should I be doing differently?

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Janus--Let it sit out for a day or so and it should dry. Also, don't use sugar in your cornbread if you are, as that makes it more moist.

bioknitkitty said...

I absolutely love panzanella and your take on it sounds delicious. Do you think the croutons would hold up well for a few days if stored separately in an airtight container?

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Bioknitkitty--They should hold up fine in an airtight container.

Curt said...

Cornbread croutons. Now you'e talkin'! Man I miss Texas!

Your website title describes me perfectly. I'll just keep grillin' and smokin' in Wisconsin and let out a yeeehaaw once in a while.

Gina Wanless said...

That looks amazing!
I went to Texas State Uni in San Marcos, but moved back home (Jerusalem, Palestine) after I finished. My dad still lives in Astin though! Finding your blog and all the food on it brings back sooo many memories. I intened to re-create lots of the recipes! first and foremost chicken fried steak and white gravy!!
Btw, did you ever go to a place called Shades in Austin on Lake travis? They made fantastic food, but i dont know if they are still there or not. Also try out the Pie Shop in Wimberly! I would kill for their keylime pie!! :D

Russell at Chasing Delicious said...

You had me at cornbread croutons! Yum. Everything else in this recipe sound incredible too. It sounds so refreshing and that vinaigrette sounds perfectly spicy. I know it's a star in the dish but do you have any magical replacements for cucumber? I've never really been a fan. I hope that doesn't make me a bad texan ; )

Shelley said...

Like Leela, I am a West Coast transplant,a Texas writer now much closer to the Pacific, and lately craving Mexican food--not the spiciest, but the middle-aged kind! :)

So keep the recipes coming....

Muffin Tin said...

My mother never let cornbread go to waste. She would cut it into ~ inch-wide slices and then fry it. It gets nicely crisp outside and stays tender inside. I realize this admission only reinforces Southern food stereotypes. For the record, I have a fear of frying.


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