Nectarine, Cherry Tomato + Cornbread Panzanella / by Alexa Arnold

Plucking a little, golden cherry tomato directly from the vine, or straight off of a market table after it's been sitting in the sun, is a pleasure I look forward to for months. It's not just about taste, either. I love the whole new excited energy that fills the air when the first tomatoes show up at market. People are buzzing around a little more quickly, buying one too many quarts, and eating them by the handful in line before they've even had a chance to pay. They're like some kind of magnetic, magical force that's impossible to resist. By mid summer, the anxiety calms, but tomatoes are no less popular. They start to show up on every dinner table, in every restaurant with the usual suspects, and I do my best to eat my fair share – tossed back whole, or halved and tossed with mozz and balsamic, or blistered under the broiler then scooped over fresh beans, or as a fresh sauce, or in a panzanella, like the recipe that follows. Regardless, each year I fall into the same panic that they'll be gone before I've really had a chance to enjoy them, and so I turn to canning, a preserving process that any cook who's as moved by tomato season as I am can likely find a great deal of satisfaction in. 

I learned to can by necessity. Right after college, I started managing a farmers market in Kentucky. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, April through November, I'd wake up before the sun and drive from my home to the market office to pack supplies into the giant bread truck we'd transformed into our market van. Once it was fully packed, I'd head downtown, arriving in an empty park, right before most of the farmers. One by one, they'd each arrive, and we'd all spend hours pulling tables, tents, signage, and produce out of trucks and into formation on the sidewalk, until the entire space had been transformed into a vibrant marketplace – all before 7am. Until 3pm, customers came and went, farmers sold food and shared tips and tricks for how to prepare it, musicians set up and played their tunes, and chefs whipped up simple recipes and shared samples on site. I manned the visitors table, showed customers around, and made my rounds between farm stands to collect daily attendance fees and catch up. Farmers are a generous bunch, so what wasn't bought by customers or sold to local restaurants was often donated, to food banks and to me. I'd go home each week with dozens of pounds of some of the freshest food in the state, along with suggestions for what to do with it from farmers and chefs alike. This is where I first learned of panzanella, a salad made of chunks of stale bread and the freshest, juiciest tomatoes, dressed in olive oil and vinegar. After sampling it at the market for the first time, I loaded up on tomatoes and ate it for a week straight. And for the tomatoes I couldn't use up in panzanella, I learned to preserve. 

I hadn't made a panzanella, let alone with cornbread, for years, until I was reminded of it by this recipe on Food52. It felt immediately right; panzanella always reminds me of that first summer at the market, and cornbread never fails to bring me right back to Kentucky (specifically, right back to the porch at Billy's BBQ). I added nectarines because they're a delicious and juicy partner to tomatoes, and with a bread as dense as cornbread, extra juice doesn't hurt this dish. The rest of the ingredients you likely already know by heart: basil, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. They all come together in a rich and deeply reassuring way. The buttery cornbread bolsters the sweetness of the nectarines and tomatoes and rounds off their acidity, while the mozzarella adds a subtle backdrop. 

For those of you interested in learning to preserve tomatoes, which I wholeheartedly recommend, I suggest consulting experts, like the blogger behind Food in Jars or the Ball Canning Guide, and not deviating too far from their recipes. Canning is a wonderful way to enjoy fresh tomatoes all winter long, and it's pretty unlikely that a canning project can go wrong, so long as you follow tried and true recipes.

Nectarine, Cherry Tomato + Cornbread Panzanella

Panzanella recipe adapted from Food52.
Cornbread recipe barely adapted from Mark Bittman.

Serves 6.

Ingredients:
For the panzanella:
> 4 large nectarines, pits removed + fruit cubed
> 2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
> 4 cups cornbread, cubed (recipe below)
> 1 bunch fresh basil, ribboned
> 5 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-sized pieces
> 4 tablespoons olive oil
> 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
> 1 tablespoon Maldon's sea salt
For the cornbread:
> 2 tablespoons butter
> 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
> 1 egg
> 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
> 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
> 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
> 1 teaspoon salt
> 1 tablespoon sugar

Preparation:
1. Make the cornbread: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a cast iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, then turn the burner off. In a mixing bowl, whisk together all dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk, then combine with the dry ingredients. If it seems too dry, add a bit more buttermilk. Pour the batter into the cast iron skillet and spread it evenly across the pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges have browned. If you stick a fork in it, it should come out clean. Let cool, then transfer to a cutting board and cut the cornbread into small cubes. Crank the heat on the oven back up to 400 degrees, and transfer the cubed cornbread to a large baking pan. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the bread is firmer, like a crouton. (Note: the cornbread can be made a day ahead of time, but I found Bittman's recipe to yield a bread that was dense and firm, yet soft enough to soak up the fruit juice.)
2. While the cornbread is baking, make the salad: Add tomatoes, nectarines, basil, mozzarella, olive oil, balsamic, and sea salt to a large mixing bowl. Toss until combined, then let sit for 10-15 minutes to let the fruit get juicy. 
3. Once they've cooled, add the cornbread croutons to the mixing bowl. Toss until combined, then let the whole thing sit for another 10-15 minutes, so the cornbread can soak up the juices.