If I weren’t such a huge fan of panzanella, the classic Italian bread salad, I might have stopped making this dish just for the sheer amount of effort required and the seemingly outrageous number of dishes it produced. Though it looks as simple and as charmingly rustic as can be once it’s in the bowl, it’s actually deceptively high maintenance. There’s peeling and dicing the butternut squash, a task I dreaded until Alanna taught me a shortcut. (Forget the peeler. Cut the bulbous bottom off, then “peel” both halves separately using a sharp knife. It makes the task MUCH easier.) Then there’s washing and trimming the brussels sprouts, cutting the onion and herbs, dicing the bread, “cooking” the bread in a buttery-herby mixture, baking the croutons, baking the squash, boiling the brussels sprouts, and making the vinagrette. Phew. And that’s not even counting baking the bread, if, like me, you’re addicted to Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread fresh out of the oven.
People, this is not a dish that can be thrown together on a whim, as it turns out. Luckily I was working from home the day I decided to attempt this behemoth, which gave me the license to slowly cut, roast, and boil over the course of hours, assembling the final product just as Dylan walked in the door. Only the massive pile of dishes in the kitchen belied the fact that I hadn’t just whipped up this little salad at a moment’s notice. Originally from the Food Network’s Michael Chiarello, I found this recipe for winter panzanella here on Smitten Kitchen, when it was mentioned as part of Deb’s Thanksgiving round-up. For the record that I feel for anyone who tried to take on this dish while putting together the rest of a Thanksgiving feast.
So was it worth all the work? Well, I’ll take a summery tomato panzanella or a creamy green springtime panzanella over this one any day. But in the interests of eating seasonally, of avoiding mealy winter tomatoes, this is a good substitute. The buttery, crisp croutons, speckled with parmesan were so good it was hard to resist snacking on them while I prepared the rest of the salad. And can you really go wrong with butternut squash? I don’t know that I have the energy and dish-washing moxie in me to make this a stand-by in my repertoire, but I’ll certainly make this again when I want a light winter supper that recalls the days of summer.
Winter panzanella (serves 4)
For the croutons:
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
6 cups day-old bread, crust removed, cubed
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
1 small red onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
Gray salt (I used kosher)
4 cups peeled, seeded, and diced butternut squash (1/2-inch dice)
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed, then quartered
1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Melt the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat and cook until it foams. Add the garlic and thyme, and immediately add the bread cubes. Toss to coat well. Add most of the grated cheese and stir. Transfer bread to a baking sheet and sprinkle with the remaining cheese and salt and pepper and gently toss again while still warm to melt the cheese. Bake stirring once or twice, until the croutons are crisp and lightly colored on the outside but still soft within, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside and let cool.
2. Soak the sliced onion in the sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt for about 15 minutes. Set aside.
3. Toss the squash with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil, sage, salt, and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until the squash is tender and lightly caramelized, about 15 to minutes. Let cool.
4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the quartered Brussels sprouts and cook until tender but retain a touch of crispness, about 1 1/2 minutes, and drain.
5. Into the reserved red onions and vinegar, whisk in remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Season with pepper.
6. In a large bowl combine the roasted squash, croutons, and Brussels sprouts. Add the vinaigrette and toss. Add the parsley leaves and toss again. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with grated Parmesan and serve immediately.