Summer in Tuscany – it is all about not using the stove. Or using it as little as possible. Contrary to many people’s wishful thinking, there’s really nothing glamorous about being under the Tuscan sun – it’s a sweltering, all-encompassing, sticky heat, made all the worse by the fact that most towns and cities are made of heavy, medieval stones that heat up during the day like a pizza oven and retain the heat all night. Touch one of the stone benches in a Florentine piazza at midnight and you’ll see what I mean – you could almost fry an egg on it.
Some are lucky enough escape to the seaside, where it’s hot just the same, but at least a sea breeze cools things at night and during the day you can jump into the water to cool off. I am one of those lucky ones, and living on the island-like Argentario for six months is proving to be a truly wonderful adventure.
July is an endless month of above-30 degree celsius heat and that begins to take its toll. I’ve been living – for the most part – off things that don’t need any cooking at all: prosciutto and melon, tomato and mozzarella. Salad. Gelato. The oven is off-limits and so is most cooking, except for a quick boil of some pasta here or there. Or, in this case, a very quick steam to open up some vongole to toss through some salad.
Because as much as I love a good, traditional, not-messed-about-with panzanella, sometimes I need a little something else in there, some extra protein to help keep my energy up in the heat while I’m running around after a two and a half year old – you could also add some really good tinned mackerel or tuna (or if you’ve made some yourself like this bonito preserved in oil), some flash-fried calamari or some ripped up, fresh mozzarella.
Play around with the ingredients and quantities, just remember that in panzanella the revived stale bread should make up about half of the volume of the salad. I like a mix of tomatoes when I can – really tiny cherry tomatoes can be just thrown in, while roughly chopped San Marzano (or other similar) tomatoes add more body. I also like to soak my onion in the vinegar while I’m preparing the other ingredients – it takes off a bit of the edge.
Finally, the bread: I don’t like soggy panzanella and luckily Tuscan bread has a great ability to not become soggy, but I can’t say the same of other breads. I find the best thing is to pass the slices of bread quickly under a running tap. Then leave them for a bit and watch how they absorb the water – if they still feel hard in the middle, give them another quick rinse. They should become springy without being soggy this way.
Panzanella with vongole
- 500 grams of vongole veraci, or other clams in their shells
- 1 small red onion (or half a large one), sliced in half moons and then in paper-thin slices
- red wine vinegar
- half a loaf of day or two old white woodfired bread
- 2 fresh San Marzano (“Roma”) tomatoes
- a handful of cherry tomatoes
- a handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
- extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
- 1 garlic clove, whole
Soak the clams in a large bowl of cold water with a heaped teaspoon of salt. Leave them for at least 30 minutes in the fridge to purge them of their sand.
Place the sliced onion in a small bowl and cover with red wine vinegar. Set aside 10 minutes or so.
Pass the bread under the faucet to soak and leave on a plate for the bread to absorb the water sufficiently, while you prepare the rest of the salad.
Chop the tomatoes roughly (if the cherry tomatoes are small enough, leave them as they are) and place in a large bowl. Add the soaked bread, torn into pieces, the onion slices along with some of the soaking vinegar. Season with salt, pepper and drizzle over a generous amount of olive oil.
Now to prepare the clams. Put a large pot with a lid over medium-high flame. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and a whole garlic clove and the drained clams. Place the lid on and and let them heat and steam in their own juices until they are all open. Remove from the heat and set the clams aside to cool.
When cool enough to handle, separate about half of the clam shells from the meat, discarding those shells. Toss the clam meat and the rest of the shells with their meat into the salad until well distributed. The clam shells will work like little bowls, holding bits of salad in them.