Spring Panzanella with Vegan Parmesan Croutons

The springtime—with its bounty of green gems of produce like asparagus, peas, artichokes, and fava beans (hear more about all of these on my recent appearance on the Our Hen House podcast!)—has sparked in my memory a recipe that my mother and I enjoyed often during our pre-vegan days. A creation of our past Top Chef sweetheart Michael Chiarello, this innovative, spring-inspired take on panzanella (Italian bread and tomato salad) featured lightly cooked spring veggies and parmesan-coated croutons in a basil-asparagus puree, topped with shavings of ricotta salata cheese. Every iteration of this salad that my mother and I made offered a brilliant amalgamation of fresh and unctuous flavors and contrasting textures.

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While the past four springs have passed without my attempt at recreating such an artful salad (well, artful except for the exploitatively manufactured butter and cheese…), the urge to once again experience the dish’s symphony of tastes and mouthfeels recently overwhelmed my gastronomic sensibilities. To veganize the parmesan croutons, I employed a commonly invoked technique of the world of vegan cheese-making, and blended nuts with nutritional yeast for a parmesan-like cheesy sprinkle. Tossed with coconut oil-coated bread cubes, this nourishing vegan parm—packed with vitamins B12 and E, not to mention tons of umami—yielded croutons quite flavorful enough to shine alongside the fresh spring veggies of this exceptional panzanella.

Fresh nut ricotta from Kite Hill (photo courtesy of Kite Hill).

Fresh nut ricotta from Kite Hill (photo courtesy of Kite Hill).

Instead of the ricotta salata, I dotted the composed salad with fresh cashew-and-macadamia ricotta from the much-hyped vegan cheese company Kite Hill (now, excitingly, available at Whole Foods in the fancy cheese section!). While this cheese will blow your mind with its firm creaminess and deep tanginess, if you can’t find it, a homemade cashew cheese would work quite well.

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Hurry on over to your local farmers’ market, for asparagus season won’t last much longer! And I assure you: you’d be remiss to allow a whole ‘nother year to pass without reveling in this mouthwatering, substantial salad. Happy springtime!

Spring Panzanella with Vegan Parmesan Croutons—Soy Free.

Serves 4-6.

Parmesan Crouton Ingredients:
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
2 tbsp raw almonds or walnuts
2 tbsp raw cashews
Pinch of lemon zest
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
4 cups day-old whole grain bread, crusts removed and cubed (I used Ezekiel brand bread)

Panzanella Ingredients:
1/2 small head of radicchio, cut into ribbons
1 lb asparagus, trimmed
Freshly ground black pepper & sea salt to taste
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
1/2 cup scallions, thinly sliced
5 tsp lemon juice, divided
1 large handful of arugula
1/2 cup-ish Kite Hill firm ricotta (or homemade cashew cheese)

Make the parmesan croutons: Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a food processor, pulse the nutritional yeast, almonds, cashews, salt, and lemon zest until crumbly. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with the melted coconut oil. Add the nut mixture and toss to combine. Spread the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the croutons are crisp and lightly browned. Set aside.

Make the rest of the salad: Fill a medium-sized bowl with ice and cold water. Place the radicchio ribbons into the ice water and let sit as you prepare the rest of the salad.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Cut the asparagus in half, separating the tender tips from the more woody ends. Once the water is boiling, blanch the asparagus tips for one minute, then remove from the water with a sieve. Set aside. To the same water, add the asparagus ends and blanch for 3-5 minutes or until tender.

In a blender or food processor, puree the asparagus ends (not tips!), basil, 3 tbsp of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

In a large bowl, combine the parmesan croutons, asparagus, peas, and scallions. Add enough of the asparagus puree to coat the mixture lightly and evenly. Add 4 tsp lemon juice and toss again.

Drain the radicchio ribbons and dry with either a salad spinner or a clean dish towel. In a separate, medium-sized bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil and 1 tsp of lemon juice. Place the dressed arugula on a large platter, then mound the crouton mixture on top. Dot the plate with the Kite Hill ricotta or spoonfuls of cashew cheese. Serve immediately.

Recipe submitted to Healthy Vegan Fridays.

Until next time, Ali.

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4 thoughts on “Spring Panzanella with Vegan Parmesan Croutons

  1. Amanda says:

    Beautiful. I’m loving the crusted croutons, and they’re going on the to-try list.

    (I’m going itchy waiting for Kite Hill to make it to my area, or any nearby city where I might spend a long weekend and bring back a cooler.)

  2. smallftprints says:

    This looks delicious! I can’t wait to try out your recipe for “Parmesan” … it looks so flavorful! Thanks you for sharing!

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