Food

The California Cook: A bruschetta bar: bread, toppings, eat

ItalyPetroleum Industry

A dreary November day in Umbria. On the shores of Lake Trasimeno, the holiday boats are pulled up and covered. We're visiting the frantoio of one of my favorite olive oil producers, Alfredo Mancianti, as he grinds a mound of purple-black olives into paste beneath an old stone wheel. He pops a couple of slices of bread into a beat-up electric toaster oven, rubs them lightly with just a touch of garlic, then spoons over a little golden green oil that has floated up from the crushed olives. A sprinkle of salt and he's done.

That's probably the single best bruschetta I've ever eaten, and, on context alone, one of the best foods period. It's also one of the simplest. And therein lies what is probably the most important thing you should know about bruschetta: It's a celebration of simplicity, of the Italian art of making something amazing from next to nothing.

On the other hand, maybe they were crostini. As long as I've been pondering the difference between the two, I'm still not sure. My understanding (backed up by my tattered copy of "Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia") is that a bruschetta is a basic thing — the only endorsed topping beyond the basic olive oil and salt is a little chopped tomato.

Crostini are fancier, more like canapes or cocktail snacks. Crostini may be more sophisticated, but the bruschetta retains a certain simple profundity. It's like the difference between a pop single and a folk song.

My definition may or may not be the same as yours. The good thing is that it really doesn't matter, we're free of such strictures in California. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't honor the philosophy. I may flout tradition by topping bruschetta with any number of unsanctioned ingredients, but I do try to remember that simpler is better. There is elegance in restraint.

As long as we're talking about bruschetta, please indulge me in a brief — yes, certainly pedantic — rant. In Italy, the combination "ch" is pronounced like a hard "c," so "bruschetta" is brew-SKET-a, or even, for the truly fastidious, brew-SKATE-a. Pronouncing it brew-SHET-a is like dragging your fingernails across a chalkboard, even though some very smart and very nice people do it. Chiaro?

When I was cooking a dinner party for a good friend recently, she suggested we try an idea she had seen in a magazine, something the authors called a "bruschetta bar" — setting out toast, olive oil, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and letting guests construct their own bruschetta. I liked the idea — there's nothing that enlivens a dinner like forcing your guests to help prepare their own food.

That assortment didn't seem particularly generous, so I added a couple more toppings — grilled figs, prosciutto and fresh ricotta — just for a touch of abbondanza. It was a lot of fun, but afterward it struck me that even that expanded selection really was just a start. Particularly at this time of year, when the markets are overflowing with the best of the summer vegetables — tomatoes, eggplant, peppers — the possibilities for bruschetta toppings are almost limitless.

Offer a platter of toasted bread, a couple of bowls of different kinds of cheese and an assortment of summer's best vegetables prepared in varied enough ways, and you've got a real bruschetta bar.

Guests can build their own, topping the bread with a little roasted eggplant, or grilled pepper or chopped tomato. Then a smidgen of cheese and maybe a little torn basil or chopped mint. Or they can mix and match: That eggplant puree is delicious with a sliver of pepper.

Just encourage them to show a little restraint. When it comes to bruschetta, beauty lies in simplicity.

Bread

Slice a baguette about half an inch thick, or maybe a little less. Cut it on a slight bias to extend the surface so it will hold more topping. If you want to be authentic, grill the bread over a medium fire until it's toasted on both sides. Cut an unpeeled clove of garlic in half and rub the cut side against the bread. Finally, drizzle it with olive oil. If you have friends who hate garlic (you don't, do you?), you can do half of the bread with the garlic rub and the other half without.

Be careful when you're grilling the bread since it will scorch very easily; you can tell when it's time to turn by watching the top side, when it begins to look opaque and white, it's time.

If you want to play it safe, you can also arrange the slices on a cookie sheet and bake them at 400 degrees. When they start to brown on the bottom, about 10 to 15 minutes, flip them and go an additional five to 10 minutes to finish. Although they'll lack some of the smoky savor of the grilled, they'll be cooked evenly and without nearly the risk of scorching. You can usually figure on 20 to 25 slices from a baguette.

Cheeses

Choose one spreadable cheese that has a really fresh clean flavor, such as a good brand of ricotta, or a fresh goat (or even a combination of the two). Choose one cheese that is rich, such as burrata or fresh mozzarella. And choose one salty cheese. Ricotta salata is a good one — shave off long thin slices with a vegetable peeler. A good feta is another — cut it in a small dice or simply crumble it between your fingers.

Fresh herbs

Nothing fancy — a big bowl of torn basil and a little one of minced fresh parsley or mint will be fine.

Vegetables

Eggplant

• The most obvious way to cook eggplant for bruschetta is on the grill. It's probably also the easiest. Slice the eggplant about half- to three-quarters-inch thick; brush both sides with olive oil and season lightly with salt. Grill them over a medium fire until they are lightly browned and quite tender — depending on the heat of your fire, that'll take about five to seven minutes. As soon as the eggplant is done, put it in a container, brush with garlic-infused olive oil, and layer with fresh herbs, such as basil and oregano or mint.

• You can also create a kind of Italian baba ghanouj by grilling a whole eggplant (be sure to pierce it a few times with a fork to prevent explosions) or roasting it in a 400-degree oven (put it on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil). When the eggplant is so soft that it has collapsed (about 45 minutes), tear it open and use a pair of forks to scoop out the insides. If you get a little skin, it won't hurt anything. Drain them in a strainer for 15 to 20 minutes to remove any excess moisture. Then transfer the pulp to a food processor and coarsely puree with minced garlic and just enough olive oil for flavor (just a couple of pulses — it should be a chunky paste rather than a smooth puree). Fold in capers and season with salt and pepper.

• Steamed eggplant? You bet. The flavor is really surprising, sweet and subtle, and the texture is like silk. Cut the eggplant into chunks, season lightly with salt and cook it in a tightly covered steamer until tender, about five minutes. While the eggplant is still quite hot, add minced garlic, a little fresh rosemary and some hot pepper flakes, and dress it with olive oil and lemon juice.

• Probably the most traditional way to prepare eggplant is sautéing. This is also the only preparation that calls for pre-salting (it really improves the texture of fried eggplant, but not roasted, steamed or grilled). Cut the eggplant into large chunks or dice and season it generously with salt. Arrange the eggplant in a colander and weight it with a dish or bowl and let it stand for at least an hour (put it in the sink or over a bowl to catch the drained liquid). Give it a quick rinse and pat it dry. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add some chopped onion. Once that has softened, add a little minced garlic. When that is aromatic, add the eggplant chunks and cook until they are lightly browned and tender, about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl to cool and, just before serving, season with red wine vinegar.

Tomato

• There is no vegetable more basic to the bruschetta than the tomato, and there is no preparation more basic than a simple chop. Core the tomatoes, cut them in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds. Chop them moderately fine and, just before serving, season with salt, minced garlic and good olive oil. Basta.

• As long as you've already got a fire going, you might as well grill the tomatoes. Core them, cut them in half and squeeze out the seeds. Arrange them in a grill basket and cook them over a medium fire, just until they are slightly charred, about five minutes. Brush them periodically with garlic-infused olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

• You can also confit the tomatoes: Choose plum tomatoes for this and core them and slice them in half lengthwise. Put them in a gratin dish with a few peeled whole cloves of garlic. Pour over enough olive oil to moisten generously, season with salt and pepper, and bake at 350 degrees until the tomatoes are shriveled and shrunken, the garlic is soft and the whole thing smells like heaven.

Peppers

• Probably the most luxurious bruschetta you can make is one dressed with grilled peppers. The texture and depth of flavor are amazing. It's also really easy to make: Grill whole peppers over a medium fire until they are scorched and shriveled on all sides (don't worry if there are some black spots). Remove them to a bowl, cover them with a towel and let them steam for five minutes. When they're cool enough to handle, simply pull the charred skin away with your fingers. Tear the peppers into shreds and season with thinly sliced garlic, salt and sherry vinegar (or, if you have one, a good aged aceto balsamico). The peppers can also be roasted in the oven on a jelly roll pan at 400 degrees.

• If for some reason that doesn't work for you, try a peperonata-style topping. Sauté onions in olive oil over medium heat until they get fairly brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add sliced peppers and minced garlic and cook briefly, pour over a little red wine and continue cooking until the peppers wilt, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and red wine vinegar.

russ.parsons@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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