A Bowl of Bruschetta

I'm always lured to the huge crusty loaves of Italian bread in my local bakery, knowing full well that a loaf will go stale before my husband and I ever finish it.

Italian cooks evidently have this problem as well. The first approach is to make bruschetta--a kind of tomatoes on toast. Then they move on to bread salad: a mixture of stale bread, tomatoes, herbs, oil and vinegar. So in my kitchen I consider bread salad a clever use of leftovers.

A local caterer showed me how to transform bread salad into a dish with marvelous complex flavors and an elegant look.

The delicious difference comes from using fresh Italian bread and grilling it for a slightly smoky, toasted taste, then packing the salad with potent, aromatic ingredients such as roasted peppers, feta cheese and olives. I add hazelnuts for crunch (celery is a fine substitute) and jalapeno chiles for bite.

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This makes a delightful main course any time of the year, especially when served with refreshing minted cantaloupe.

GRILLED BREAD AND SWEET PEPPER SALAD

1 sweet red pepper

3 to 4 slices Italian bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick

1/4 cup dried Greek black olives

1 1/2 teaspoons green peppercorns, packed in brine and drained

2/3 cup cubed feta cheese

1/2 cup chopped green onions, white and green parts

1 jalapeno chile, cored, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts, optional

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar

2 to 3 tablespoons water

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Place sweet red pepper on grate of grill over hot coals and cook, turning to blacken all sides, about 12 to 15 minutes.

At same time add bread slices to grill and toast on both sides until lightly browned, about 2 minutes per side. Remove both from grill. Cut bread into cubes to equal 4 cups. Set aside.

Place sweet pepper in plastic food bag and seal. Set aside 1 hour. Remove sweet pepper. Place under cold running water and scrape off skin with paring knife. Core and seed sweet pepper. Cut into bite-size pieces. Place bread and sweet pepper in large serving bowl. Add olives, green peppercorns, feta cheese, green onions, jalapeno and nuts. Toss gently but well.

Stir together olive oil, vinegar, 2 tablespoons water and salt and pepper to taste. Pour over salad and toss well. If salad is slightly dry, add remaining 1 tablespoon water. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes 2 servings.

MINTED CANTALOUPE

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup water

2 rounded tablespoons chopped mint

1/2 ripe cantaloupe

2 mint sprigs

Combine sugar, water and mint in small pan and simmer 10 minutes. Set side to cool.

Meanwhile seed and peel cantaloupe. Cut cantaloupe meat into bite-size pieces and place in bowl. Strain mint mixture and pour syrup over cantaloupe. Stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour. Serve with mint sprig garnish. Makes 2 servings.

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