Cynthia Ferris-Bennett: Mother’s Day strawberry panzanella salad (recipe)

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Hasn’t mom cooked enough? Now is the perfect time to whip up an impressive, refreshing salad for Mother’s Day… Strawberry panzanella salad.

This variation on the traditional panzanella salad makes for a beautiful plated presentation and an explosion for the taste buds. If you have ever taken a class at Sierra Chef, then you know that I love to shop at Trader Joe’s.

In fact, we have classes based on specific ingredients from Trader Joe’s such as our Thanksgiving Sides class. This way you can be anywhere in the country and get the exact ingredients needed for your recipe. And no, I don’t own stock in TJs... just a fun place to shop.

Back to the salad… A traditional panzanella salad has its roots in the Tuscan and Umbrian regions of Italy. It utilizes day old bread cut in large cubes that is combined with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh garlic, olives, fresh basil, EVOO and a little sea salt.

All these ingredients combine to create this popular salad. Quantities of each ingredient are typically adjusted to the palate of the cook. Maybe you like a little more basil and a little less bread… adjust as you like.

While this salad does not have lettuce in the ingredient list, I do plate it on top of a bed of arugula. The arugula adds a nice peppery taste and leafy texture. All ingredients are readily available at TJs and most Farmers Markets…


• 1 baguette – cut into 1-inch cubes. I let mine sit out cut overnight to dry out a bit. Do not toast the cubes, they just need to be a little dry.

• 1 English cucumber – you can use a regular cucumber but be sure to remove the seeds. The cucumber skin…this is your preference. The skin on an English cucumber is soft and has a mild pleasant flavor which I think adds to the recipe and I keep the skin on the cucumber.

A standard cucumber has a tough skin that can be bitter, and the seeds also have a bitter aftertaste which is why I suggest removing both. Cut cucumbers into half-moon shapes and place in a large mixing bowl.

• 2 pounds fresh strawberries – thoroughly wash and dry all strawberries. Reserve 3 of the largest and nicest strawberries for decoration and keep the green top on these 3.

Hull the strawberries which is a fancy term for removing the green top from the strawberries. Cut strawberries into quarters lengthwise and add to the mixing bowl.

The 3 remaining strawberries need to be cut so they can “fan” out on the top of the salad (see photo). Start by cutting down the center of the strawberry but be sure to leave a half inch from the top of the green uncut.

Continue making 2 cuts on either side. You should be able to push the slices apart while keeping the strawberry intact… set aside.

• 20 fresh basil leaves – slice your basil leaves chiffonade style. This is a slicing technique in which you stack the leaves, roll them up and then cut them into ribbons.

• 1 tablespoon fresh thyme – “strip” the leaves off the stem by pulling down in the opposite direction of the growth. The top leaves will need to be pick off… set leaves aside.

• 1 small red onion – cut into very thin half-moons

• 1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil

• 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese or ricotta salata cheese

• Sea salt to taste

• Fresh chamomile flowers – these can almost always be found at TJs and are an edible flower. Pick 20 of the flower heads and set aside.

• 1 container fresh pomegranate seeds – drain any liquid off and dry seeds with a paper towel.

• 1 Bag arugula


Combine bread, cucumber, strawberries, basil, thyme, red onion and EVOO… mix. Add feta/ricotta salata and gently combine. Adjust salt if needed.

Place a thin layer of arugula on the entire bottom of your serving platter. Add the panzanella mixture in the center and spread out but still showing the arugula around the edge.

Place the 3 Strawberry fans on the top center of the salad. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds on top. Place the chamomile flowers on the top of the salad… and serve. Mangia and Happy Mother’s Day!

Cynthia Ferris-Bennett is the owner of the Sierra Chef Culinary Center, Italian Bakery, Deli & Gourmet Market in Genoa. 


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