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Healthy Cooking: How to turn panzanella into a guilt-free, bread-lover’s salad

More veggies and less bread means you can enjoy this fresh, tangy salad all summer long. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES
More veggies and less bread means you can enjoy this fresh, tangy salad all summer long. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

Panzanella is a bread-lover’s salad: a delicious bowl of crusty baguette cubes soaked in lip-pursing vinaigrette and finished with a flourish of bright summer veggies. It’s so easy to make, you can wing the recipe. It’s so beautiful to plate, you can serve it fancy or casual. And it’s so inexpensive, you can enjoy it every time the craving strikes.

But here’s where healthy cooking gets tricky. All of that white bread is in what I consider nutritional purgatory — not as wholesome as leafy greens, not as decadent as red meat. Rather than exile panzanella to “moderate amounts,” I tweaked the ingredients so that this summer specialty can be enjoyed enthusiastically and often.

Start with the bread, which is traditionally the heart of the recipe. Here, I still use crusty white baguette (because it’s yummy, people), just not a lot — about a third of a baguette instead of the whole thing. Slice your bread into 1-inch cubes and bake them for a few minutes until they’re crunchy. Note: We save calories by toasting the bread cubes plain — not tossed in oil or melted butter. Without the added fat, your bread will remain white, not golden, no matter how long you bake it. But that’s OK, because our glorious summer vegetables give the salad plenty of color.

Since we reduced the amount of bread in our healthy panzanella, we’re going to make up the difference with lots of crunchy veggies. Here I use bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions; feel free to change it up depending on your farmers market haul. The secret is to invite as many colors into your salad as you can. If you use red cherry tomatoes, chop up orange and yellow bell peppers. Or mix yellow and purple tomatoes with green bell peppers. The more of the rainbow you include, the more attractive your salad will look.

There’s only one element of panzanella that I’m particular about, and that’s the vinegar in the homemade dressing. Readers, you must use champagne vinegar, because it’s light and crisp and every other vinegar makes my dressing taste like pickle juice. I use 2 tablespoons because I’m a big fan; start with 1 tablespoon and see what you think. While the name conjures images of posh people drinking bubbly, champagne vinegar costs about the same as other specialty vinegars. Mix the vinegar with your favorite oil. I prefer the neutral taste of canola oil to heart-healthier olive oil; you get to decide which one best meets your priorities. In either case, substituting water for half of the oil will further reduce fat and calories.

Lastly, I bump up the nutritional content of my panzanella by adding sliced chicken for lean protein. Chicken is just so easy. If you are grilling over the weekend, add two extra pieces for the salad. If that’s too much planning ahead, use half of everyone’s favorite fallback, a grocery store rotisserie chicken. The dressing adds a blast of zippy flavor, so no one will notice that you’re stretching your leftovers into an entirely new meal. Don’t eat chicken? Forget I mentioned it. Throw a poached egg on top and enjoy panzanella for breakfast or brunch. You can’t have too much of this very good (and healthy!) delight.

Using champagne vinegar in the dressing for your Healthy Chicken Panzanella Salad will make a world of difference. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES
Using champagne vinegar in the dressing for your Healthy Chicken Panzanella Salad will make a world of difference. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

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