Think of a salade Nicoise, with chunks of crusty bread soaked in oil, vinegar and herbs. These are the flavors and texture of pan-bagnat.
This dish, whose name means "wet bread," was designed by frugal French women to use up stale pieces of country bread, according to Jacques Medecin, author of "Cuisine Nicoise" (Penguin Books: $8.95, softcover).
"Originally pan-bagnat was simply a salade Nicoise," Medecin writes, "to which had been added . . . stale country bread broken into negotiable mouthfuls with a hammer or pestle. The bread soaked up the olive oil and the juice of the tomatoes, making a delicious accompaniment to the salad."
The addition was so successful bakers began producing a small round loaf of bread, also called pan-bagnat.
Years ago, when I was in Nice, vendors sold still another concoction called pan-bagnat. This version was a salade Nicoise inside a hollowed-out round loaf of bread. We would buy a pan-bagnat in the morning to sustain us during our long, lazy days at the beach. (I used to think the name had something to do with a sandwich that would withstand the water and sand.)
The following recipe for two reverts to the original pan-bagnat. A variation of salade Nicoise is combined with bread cubes for a hearty, robustly flavored entree.
1 (6 1/2-ounce) can tuna, drained
1 large plum tomato, cored and diced
2 green onions, green and white parts, sliced
1 rounded tablespoon capers
5 black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped (preferably Nicoise olives)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil
2 cups small bread chunks
Freshly ground pepper
Combine tuna, tomato, green onions, capers, olives and basil in salad bowl.
Briefly soak bread in 1 cup water, then squeeze out all water by hand. Crumble bread so it isn't in clumps, then add to tuna mixture. Pour Dressing over bread and tuna. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss and let stand 15 minutes for flavors to blend. Makes 2 servings.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons Sherry wine vinegar
Freshly ground white pepper
Whisk together oils, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste in small bowl.
Note: Sherry wine vinegar is available in gourmet food stores. Basil-flavored vinegar or mild red wine vinegar can be substituted.
PAN-BAGNAT SANDWICH: Eliminate bread in Pan-Bagnat Salad. Cut small round French bread in half horizontally. Scoop out some of insides (use for bread crumbs, if desired). Sprinkle inside of loaf with some Dressing. Mound salad on bread. Sprinkle with remaining Dressing and replace top. Wrap with plastic wrap or foil and set aside 1 hour for flavors to blend.