Winter Panzanella

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For months, I’ve craved a routine. A set schedule. A possibility for an impromptu night out without asking for the time off. To know that I can make plans a month from now because I’ll have the weekend off, like everybody else.

The weekend! It’s back in my life. I’ve recently started a new job (at a law firm) with a weekday schedule and 9-to-5 hours. Hello, happy hour. Hello, rush hour, which I’ve used to call my abuelita and my madrina, listen to podcasts, and okay yes, yell at other drivers. Driving home on a Friday evening feels really good. I look forward to going to work, and I look forward to going home.

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Saturday and Sunday, you’re mine, and now I’ve got the weekends with Danny.

So far it’s been a lot of sleeping in and leisurely breakfasts followed by more leisure, and sometimes, an after-breakfast nap. There’s a second cup of coffee because it’s cozy, and we’ve watched a few movies.

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We’ve also done a little cooking. I’ve had panzanella on a mental to-do list for a long time and it feels so good to check it off. This is a winter panzanella with butternut squash and brussels sprouts. It’s colorful and boasts a good mix of texture and flavor, too. It’s a pretty perfect weekend lunch to brighten up a gloomy or cold day. This panzanella serves four as a main course and six a side.

The brussels sprouts are blackened and crisp at the edges. I roasted the sprouts instead of boiling them like the original recipe called for (why ever boil them?) because it tastes fantastic this way and I had the oven on for the squash anyway.

The squash doesn’t get very browned or crispy at all in just 15 minutes, and I let it go for another 10, but in the end I liked the lightly caramelized squash for this salad. It was soft, and a nice contrast against the crispy sprouts and crunchy croutons.

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Have you ever made croutons before? This was my first attempt, and they were simple, as so many delicious things are. These are crunchy and crusted in cheese, garlic, and thyme. Sunday afternoon smelled so good.

And this recipe makes a healthy amount of croutons. Feel free to eat a few before serving because (1) you won’t be able to resist and (2) you’ll have plenty left to serve the salad.

The vinaigrette came from thinly sliced red onion steeped in sherry vinegar, which Michael Chiarello says is sometimes called blooming the onion. It’s not quite a pickled onion, just a quick way to make raw onion more mellow. The slight pungency worked really well here.

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There was also one little step I decided to skip. The ingredient list on Food Network’s website casually said to get six cups of cubed bread and to remove any crusts. There was no explanation for removing the bread crust. Why?? Whenever there are seemingly odd instructions in recipes without any justification, I tend to want to skip it. I reasoned that nothing bad would happen if I didn’t send good crust to the trash. Especially when I used most of a baguette for this. That’s a lot of bread crust. And you know what? It was totally fine.

I’m learning to trust my gut when it comes to matters of the kitchen.

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winter panzanella

Soaking the sliced onion in sherry vinegar (blooming the onion) softens the flavor of raw onion. 

for the croutons:

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic (from about 2 cloves garlic)
2 teaspoons finely chopped thyme
6 cups day-old bread cut into bite-sized (1/2 to 1-inch cubes, and baguette or sourdough bread is good)
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
salt
black pepper

for the salad:

1 small red onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
4 cups diced butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (a 2-pound squash is more than enough)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a few more tablespoons
1/2 pound brussels sprouts, quartered
1/2 cup roughly chopped Italian parsley

Heat oven to 400°F.

Melt the butter in a large skillet (I used my Dutch oven) over medium heat until it begins to foam. Stir in the garlic and thyme, and immediately add the bread. Toss to coat. You may add in an extra tablespoon of butter here to make sure all the bread cubes are coated. Add most of the grated cheese and stir. Move the bread cubes to a baking sheet and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese, a pinch of salt, and a little dash of pepper. Gently toss together, and then spread out the croutons. Bake until the croutons are crisp and golden brown on the outside but still slightly soft inside, 8 to 12 minutes. Stir croutons once or twice in that time. Remove from oven and let cool.

Soak the sliced onion in a small bowl with the sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt for about 15 minutes.

Toss the squash in a large bowl with 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper. In another bowl, toss the brussels sprouts with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread squash out on a large baking sheet and bake until the squash is tender and lightly caramelized, 15 to 25 minutes. Meanwhile, spread the brussels sprouts out on a medium baking sheet and bake at the same time as the squash until crisp and caramelized at the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil to the bowl with the vinegar and onions. Season with pepper.

Toss the roasted squash, croutons, and brussels sprouts in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette and toss to coat. Add the parsley leaves and toss again. Garnish with a bit more grated Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6. Adapted from Michael Chiarello.

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