Sunny's Spicy Spinach Panzanella — The Weekender

By: Marisa McClellan
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My Grandma Bunny was known for her spinach salad. It was one of her most regularly requested recipes by friends and made an appearance on her table at nearly every family gathering. She would search out adolescent leaves, wanting greens that would relax upon dressing and tossing, but not wilt immediately. Palm-sized leaves were avoided, as they were too old to be eaten without the application of heat.

Once the right spinach was chosen, it was washed carefully (I think this was in part to give an eager grandchild an opportunity to help). I’d climb up on a stool next to the kitchen sink and swish the leaves around until Bunny was certain they’d released all their grit. Once they were clean, she’d shake off the big droplets and heap them into a large pillowcase that was fitted with a drawstring. She’d take the pillowcase outside and twirl it around over her head. More efficient than a salad spinner and far more entertaining for small children.

Then it was time to make the dressing. It started with a few slices of minced bacon and ended with slices of mushrooms, cooked until tender but not rubbery. That, along with slivered red onions, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper finished the salad. It was warm, savory and still wonderfully crisp.

Over the weekend, I found myself craving this salad. I was expecting vegetarian dinner guests, however, who wouldn’t appreciate hunks of bacon in their salad, and my husband doesn’t do mushrooms, so I went off in search for a salad that would give me the feel of Bunny’s salad — without those vital ingredients. In my hunt, I found Sunny Anderson’s Spicy Spinach Panzanella. It hits the right notes, but gets its umami from tomatoes and toasted cubes of bread. It’s sturdy but light, and quite delicious. Perfect for The Weekender.

Before you start toasting bread cubes, here are a few things you should know:

- The recipe calls for you to use baguette cubes for the bread component. Though that’s a good option, a sturdy loaf of country or Italian bread would also work.

- Sunny calls for heirloom tomatoes. Those are out of season in these parts this time of year, so I substituted grape tomatoes. Tossed with a little salt before dressing, they start to release their juices and mimic the feel of the heirlooms.

- If you have leftover dressing, pour it into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and stash it in the fridge. It’s tasty on a variety of lettuces.

Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook, Food in Jars: Canning in Small Batches Year Round,  is now available.

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