Fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and gluten-free croutons make up this simple, yet delicious summer salad. I like to make this gluten free panzanella salad at the height of tomato season. Fresh tomatoes right from the garden are best. This recipe is inspired by the book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter. It is August’s read for my online Foodie Book Club. If you are here just for the recipe, use the “jump to recipe” button at the top of this post.
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Calling panzanella gluten-free seems like an impossibility. Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan bread salad that features fresh tomatoes and stale artisan Italian bread. The stale bread is re-hydrated with a dressing of olive oil, tomato juices and red wine vinegar. Panzanella always features fresh tomatoes. The salad also sometimes includes cucumbers, mozzarella or red onion slices.
It’s an easy salad to customize to your tastes and use the summer garden vegetables you may have on hand. Feel free to mix and match the tomatoes. In this salad, I used a mix of yellow cherry tomatoes and chunky slices of red heirloom tomatoes. Any kind of tomato works. Fresh basil leaves are also a must for this salad.
Gluten-free bread tends to be delicate and crumbly. In order for it to stand up to the dressing in this salad, I toast it in the oven first. This essentially dries the gluten-free bread out creating flavorful croutons. You can do this part ahead of time if desired. Make a big batch and save them in an airtight container. Add them to any salad you desire. All these fresh salad ingredients are tossed in a simple vinaigrette of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
I like to add fresh mozzarella to my panzanella. Ideally, I prefer burrata. This cheese is delicate and soft. When cut open it has a rich-tasting soft filling of fresh pieces of Mozzarella soaked in heavy cream. Other forms of fresh mozzarella sliced work well too.
Come for the recipe, stay for the book discussion
There are many recipes I could have selected inspired by this book. I decided upon this gluten-free panzanella recipe because of its simplicity and homage to the tomato ~ a vegetable often grown in any urban garden.
After the heart wrenching tales of my previous two foodie book club reads (The Alice Network and Sold on a Monday), I was in need of a lighter and funnier book. Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is a witty and daring tale about one women’s quest to make a garden and a small farm out of an abandoned lot in the ghetto of Oakland, CA. The lengths that our heroin Novella and her boyfriend Bill go through to grow their own food and feed their animals (particularly the pigs) is astonishing and hysterical. There are plenty of surprises throughout this story. You will love the quirky characters and discover the warmth of a thriving community even in a bad part of town. I like how the author describes the realities of her down-trodden neighborhood with a hefty scoop of reality but in a loving and appreciative way.
If you have an appreciation for old world traditions related to preserving food or growing heirloom vegetables, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Don’t be surprised if after reading this charming story, you feel compelled to go out and get yourself a few backyard chickens and become an urban homesteader. Every step of the way through this story Novella dives deeper into the throws of running an urban farm.
My favorite section of the book is when she takes on raising two very hungry and soon to be very large pigs. This is where she and Bill dive bravely into a new world of sourcing food for the pigs and find an unlikely ally in Chef Chris Lee who takes Novella under his wing. Novella is blessed to meet and study under two quite famous chefs ~ Chef Chris Lee (at the time, owner of the restaurant Eccolo) and Chef Samin Nosrat (Sous Chef at Eccolo, and most recently known for her Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat).
I love the passion expressed in this novel about the quest for quality food and being self-sufficient. At one point in the story, Novella eats exclusively from her urban garden and farm. This sounds easier than it is. The challenges she faces are both funny and understandable. Not only is the amount of food available limited, but the shear effort to produce even one prized watermelon, is difficult.
Farm City is a great book for a book club discussion. I leave you with these questions to ponder and answer in the comments below.
*spoiler alert – do not read on if you do not want any spoilers*
Turkeys, ducks, chickens, rabbits, bees and then PIGS! Does Novella go too far with the expansion of her urban farm? Should she be squatting on this abandoned property to begin with? What do you think?
Why do you think Novella and Bill choose to live in this area of Oakland instead of seeking out a more rural home that might be more suitable to their passions?
What is your opinion about Chef Chris Lee’s reaction to finding Novella dumpster diving outside of Eccolo?
Do you think Novella and Bill with continue to expand their urban farm? Would the garden plots and farm help or hinder the sale of the lot and re-gentrification of their neighborhood?
Would you be willing to eat exclusively from your garden for one month? What challenges would you face?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the gluten-free panzanella recipe as well as the book. Read along and join in the foodie book club discussion.
If you make any of my recipes, use #northwestspoon and share your photo.
Join me next time by reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This book is witty, funny and a bit of a psychological thriller. It will soon be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon. Eleanor is an odd character. She is awkward and struggles socially to fit in. She just thinks differently than most people. Her quirky ways are endearing. She means well, but often says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Eleanor is a survivor. As the story progresses, we learn so much about her past and the terrible things she went through as a child. Eleanor discovers the only way to survive our strange and wonderful world is to open your heart. This is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year. I highly recommend it.