- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Americans may think croutons are just for garnishing soup and salads, but the Italians use croutons made from day-old bread as the starting point for panzanella, a delicious bread and tomato salad.

Tossed with chopped tomatoes and a vinaigrette, the bread soaks up the juice from the sweet tomatoes and the vinegar and olive oil, taking on a wonderful flavor in no time. Crisp red onion, red bell pepper and arugula pair beautifully with the softened bread.

For a complete meal, serve the salad with already peeled and steamed shrimp you’ve picked up at the supermarket and a platter of prosciutto and summer melon.

Buy the best plain croutons you can for this salad (try to find them unseasoned) or make your own from crusty sturdy bread.

You can prepare the salad up to three hours ahead of time, but don’t add the croutons and the basil until the last minute.

Five time-shavings ways to use day-old bread

Before loaf bread became formulated to last a week or more, clever cooks came up with delicious ways to turn stale bread into something memorable. A few of these are:

• French toast. Slice and dip bread into beaten eggs and a little milk, then saute on both sides in vegetable oil or butter until browned. Serve with maple syrup.

• Fresh croutons. Dice the bread into cubes and pan-fry in butter until crispy and browned on all sides. Or use olive oil. Season as desired with salt, pepper, minced garlic or fresh herbs and serve atop salads and soups.

m Crisps. Cut into thin triangles and brush with olive oil. Bake at 400 degrees until crispy, 7 to 8 minutes and serve with cheese, dips and salads.

• Bread pudding. Layer bread with fruit in a ramekin and pour over a sweetened, seasoned mix of cream and eggs to cover the bread. Bake slowly (325 degrees) until bubbly and cooked through.

• Bread crumbs. Bake bread cubes until crunchy at 400 degrees. Season as you like with salt, pepper or herbs. Turn into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and sprinkle atop vegetable and chicken casseroles.

Panzanella

4 large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 heaping cups)

½ cup thinly sliced red onion

½ cup thinly sliced red bell pepper

1/4 cup halved pitted Kalamata olives

1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1 box (5.5 ounces) croutons

1 cup torn fresh basil leaves

6 cups Italian blend lettuce or arugula, for serving

Place the tomatoes, onion, pepper, olives, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, and salt in a large mixing bowl and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. Stir in the croutons and the basil leaves.

Let the salad sit at room temperature for 5 minutes, then serve on a bed of salad greens. Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.

Anne Byrn is the author of the popular Doctor series cookbooks, including “The Cake Mix Doctor” and “The Dinner Doctor” and “Cupcakes From the Cake Mix Doctor” (Workman Publishing). Share cooking tips, ask questions and access her free newsletter, www.cakemixdoctor.com.

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