My parents, raising three children, weren’t able to swing a trip abroad until their 25th anniversary. In anticipation of this milestone celebration, my mother bought herself a handsome, bound journal and, though it was not exactly a diary of their daily adventures, she did jot down the names of interesting shops and wrote of special sojourns. Always, memorable meals were mentioned, like the time in Spain when they were at a tapas restaurant and ordered angulas, a dish they had been told was a great delicacy. They were brought a small, shallow earthenware casserole filled with tiny (two-inch, to be exact), slithery, baby eels in a pool of garlicky olive oil. The cost: $40 American.
My parents brought home a wonderful gift from that trip, which they passed on to their children: the infinite delights of travel, or wanderlust. From that first year on, they returned to Europe and came back home full of stories that made my brother, sister and me long to explore the world.
I made a pledge with Katie, my best friend since fifth grade, to go to Europe after our high school graduation. To that end, we worked as babysitters, burger slingers, and au pairs for bratty children at a local country club. Additionally, I did a stint as an Avon “lady,” and also fashioned handbags, through the magic of decoupage, out of black aluminum lunch pails used by men in the construction industry. These I sold door to door in the apartment building in which we lived.
On Friday, July 12, 1974, Katie and I took the train from Paris to Tours, in the Loire Valley. We got a hotel room, made plans to tour four chateaux the following morning, then set out for dinner. That night in my diary I wrote, “Tonight we had our first real French meal. We had escargot, then salad, and coq au vin (chicken in red wine) for the main course. We bought a bottle of rosé wine and for dessert we got four small pastry puffs, called profiteroles, filled with ice cream and topped with hot chocolate sauce. The meal was absolutely fantastic. It cost us about $8 each.”
Fifteen years later, in May 1989, my sister, Janet, and I went to Italy for the first time. We fell in love with Tuscany and in Florence shared some spectacular meals. One Sunday we found ourselves famished and set out on a long trek to find an open restaurant, not realizing many establishments, including shops, were closed that day of the week. After 45 minutes under the hot sun we found an open and inviting establishment called “Le Follie,” where we proceeded to have one of the best meals of our stay in that city. My journal reads, “Instead of the usual chianti we decided to have white wine. We ordered two salads to split: one a tomato and bread salad called ‘panzanella’ and the other, called ‘caprese,’ consisted of sliced, perfectly ripe tomatoes and fresh, creamy mozzarella garnished with torn basil leaves and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. The panzanella, dressed in a sprightly vinaigrette, was chock full of tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, celery, cubed country bread and basil. We shared two pasta dishes: a creamy, salmon-flecked tagliatelli and a superb and unusual tortellini nero, black tortellini, which got its color and earthy taste from tartufi, or black truffles. We ended with two perfect cups of espresso and the meal came to a little less than $40.”
Over the years, there have been many more trips. Food and travel are forever linked for me. In between excursions, I like to replicate a dish we ate in another location and, instantly, I am transported back to the likes of Italy, England, Paris, New Mexico, or our latest destination, Oaxaca, Mexico. Between my garden and the farmers’ market, tomatoes abound and I can’t think of a more perfect summer dish than a juicy panzanella salad.
Panzanella (bread salad)
If you like, you can add one seeded and diced red, yellow, or orange bell pepper to the salad, as well.
4 thick slices coarse textured Mediterranean-style bread, such as ciabatta, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound (3 large) firm, ripe (preferably) heirloom tomatoes, cored and cut into large dice
1 small red onion, thinly sliced or finely minced (whichever you prefer)
2 tender celery ribs, sliced on the diagonal (optional)
2 Kirby cucumbers or 1/2 English hot-house cucumber, with skin, diced
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
2 Tbsp. best-quality red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°. Arrange the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast for about 10–12 minutes, or until slightly golden, crunchy on the outside, and still a little soft on the inside. Let cool. In a large bowl combine the tomatoes, onion, celery, cucumbers and basil (if using). In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, pinch sugar, salt and pepper. Add the toasted bread to the salad bowl and then add the dressing. Toss together to thoroughly combine. Keep at room temperature and let sit at least 15 minutes, but no longer than a half an hour. Toss once more before serving.