One of the things I’m most proud of with my Italian heritage, is that I have descended from a people who turned leftover bread into a salad. I mean, what could be better?! What makes a Panzanella, or bread salad work, aside from the charred chunks of olive oil soaked ciabatta, is the balance of sweetness and acidity that comes from the other fruits and veggies that are tossed along with it. As with many Italian staples, it is traditionally made with tomatoes. But not today! I’ve taken this classic Italian staple and turned the volume, flavor, and color up by simply using watermelon instead. How’s that for Italian ingenuity?!
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Watermelon – It goes without saying that watermelon is the star of the show. These recipes each use about ⅛ of a large watermelon, but they can easily be doubled, tripled, or halved depending on how much watermelon you’ve got. In terms of choosing the best watermelon, you’re on your own with that. I’m not good at it either. Get the best one you can find, but even a mediocre watermelon will work great in all of these recipes.
- Ciabatta bread – You want a good crusty bread that can stand up to the balsamic vinaigrette. Pretty much any bread that you have to slice yourself will work. I like a ciabatta because it’s got the perfect texture and crumb for this salad, and no matter where I find it, it always seems to be vegan.
- “Good” olive oil – I’m laughing as I type this because I always thought it was funny how Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, is always telling people to, “Use good olive oil… “, and then here I am telling y’all to “Use good olive oil… “. But really, use good olive oil. You will definitely taste it in the balsamic vinaigrette, so you want to make sure you use the best that you can.
- Garlic – It’s important to have garlic for depth of flavor. Not a fan? Use less or none. I guess you could use a bit of garlic powder if that’s all you’ve got. Pre-chopped would also be fine, but fresh is, of course, best.
- Dijon mustard – The vinaigrette needs some mustard to help it emulsify. I think Dijon is the best for this purpose because the flavor is less recognizable as MUSTARD than your traditional yellow variety. If that’s all you’ve got, use it. Brown or any type of sweet or spicy mustard would work well, too.
- Balsamic vinegar – With watermelon, there is no better vinegar than balsamic. The flavors work so well together, and the balsamic just adds a richness to the watermelon. I wouldn’t recommend using any other vinegar in this dish, but if you ONLY had red wine vinegar on hand, you could probably get away with using that.
- Red onion – For it’s color and sweetness, I prefer red onion in this recipe. Want to use something else? Pretty much any onion, or even a shallot, will work.
- Seedless cucumber – I prefer the cucumbers that are unnecessarily wrapped plastic wrap. Sometimes they’re called English cucumbers… They are theoretically seedless, and the skin is nice and thin. You could easily use any other type of cucumber, just remove the seeds, and if the skin is really thick and fibrous, peel it off.
- Red and/or yellow bell pepper – In addition to great flavor, the bell peppers add a ton of color to this dish. You can use both color, of if you want to save yourself from having to buy two peppers when you only need the quantity of one,
- FRESH basil leaves – There is no substitution for fresh basil. Don’t use dry. Try your best to find a large clamshell of basil, or do like I did, and buy a small plant to keep in your windowsill.
Wait. What? Watermelon?!
Admittedly, I’m not an expert on picking out watermelons. I look for the yellow patch, and I thump them to listen for something, and I now even look for the lines that supposedly tell you that it’s got a lot of sugar in it. Occasionally, my detective work pays off, and I’m rewarded with a perfectly sweet and ripe watermelon. Other times, even if a melon seems to check all of the ripeness boxes, it’s “just OK”.
But like pizza, Thai food, and sex, a “just OK” waterelon is still worth having.
I don’t buy watermelons as often as I would like to, mostly because I feel like they require a lot of work to get into. And once you do get into them, there seems to be a ton of byproduct that I never know what to do with. Not to mention the storage aspect of trying to refrigerate 15 to 20 pound of fruit.
So, I started to think of other ways that I could use watermelon, both to help me eliminate some of the waste, and to give me some other ways to enjoy a watermelon that might not be the ripest or sweetest one of the bunch.
It came to me that I had seen watermelon used in a recipe that normally called for tomates, so I decided to see just how far I could take it.
No shade at tomatoes, but tomatoes are another one of those fruits that are never really as good as you would like them to be, and most of the time when you find them in our season-less supermarkets, they are under-ripe and bland.
I learned a lot from my initial tests. First of all, “just ok” watermelons are superior to “meh” tomatoes. A watermelon that’s not as sweet as it could be is still more flavorful than a tomato with the same challenges.
Secondly, the yield you get from a single watermelon, is exponentially more than what you get from an entire bushel of tomatoes. I was taken aback by just how much fruit there actually is in a watermelon. I paid close to $6 at Sprouts for an organic melon, and I just keep thinking how much it would have cost for me to get the same amount of usable fruit from organic tomatoes.
In terms of the waste or byproduct, the watermelon does have an edible rind, between the skin and the flesh, that is actually quite good when handled properly. I have a few recipes I’m working on for that, so stay tuned.
The four recipes that I tested out using watermelon in place of tomatoes all came out incredible:
The flavor and texture of the watermelon works so perfectly in all of these dishes that, if you didn’t know any better, you would think they had been made to use watermelon all along.
Check out this video to see just how easily these dishes can be made, and then scroll down for the down for the full printable recipe for my Watermelon Panzanella.
A modern twist on the classic Italian bread salad, made with watermelon instead of tomatoes.
- ½ loaf ciabatta cut into ½ to ¾ inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 3 tablespoons good olive oil
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 12 to 14 ounces watermelon, cut into ½ to ¾ inch cubes
- ¼ red onion, cut into slivers
- ½ seedless cucumber cut into ¼ inch thick rounded triangles
- ½ red bell pepper, seeded, and cut into ½ to ¾ inch squares
- ½ yellow bell pepper, seeded, and cut into ½ to ¾ inch squares
- 10 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
- Heat a large cast iron or heavy-bottom skillet to medium-high heat. Place the cubed bread onto the pan, and drizzle with olive oil. Allow the bread to get charred and crusty and browned, tossing often. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Combine all dressing ingredients into a jar, and shake to emulsify
- Prepare the salad ingredients and place them in a large mixing or serving bowl. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad ingredients prior to serving, and toss. This can be done up to an hour in advance.
- Toss the crusty bread with the dressed salad just before serving.