- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Bruschetta is Italy’s answer to the easiest appetizer for summer entertaining. A trio of bruschetta (broo-SKET-tah) is a swell way to begin a casual party, especially if you will be grilling the entree. All it takes is some thick slices of rustic peasant bread toasted over a fire or under the broiler, a hefty drizzle of fruity extra-virgin olive oil, a generous rub with a clove of fresh garlic and a topping or two of your choice. For now, forget about the toppings. Bruschetta is really all about the bread.

Choose a bread that is sturdy, chewy and flavorful. One slice of a rustic loaf cut into thick rounds will make a hearty first course. If you would like to serve several smaller slices covered with several different toppings, choose a thinner baguette and slice it on the diagonal to make ovals.

Grill the bread over medium hot coals until nicely browned. Then flip and brown the other side. Not much can beat the smoky flavor of warm, crisp and lightly charred bread with the added bonus of grill marks on the surface.

If it’s more convenient, broil the bread. Coat one or two baking sheets with olive oil and set the bread slices on the sheets in a single layer. Place the sheets under a hot broiler and broil until the bread surface is toasty and browned. Flip the pieces and broil the other sides. Grill or broil only at the last minute. Don’t even think about using the toaster. It just doesn’t work.

As soon as the slices are toasted, rub the rough surfaces with the cut side of a clove of raw garlic. Next top the hot bread with an additional drizzle of olive oil and a few grains of kosher salt. Keep in mind that at this stage, you have made the simplest, easiest and most delicious garlic bread possible.

However, I promised bruschetta, so now for the toppings. Most of them can be made an hour or so in advance and will benefit from the rest as the flavors marry. Pile them onto the bread just before serving.

Tomato toppings are traditional, either fresh or roasted, but it’s a tie as to which is the better version.

FRESH TOMATO

Seed and dice fresh tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and as many herbs as you can assemble. A light sprinkle of balsamic vinegar will brighten the taste. Chopped scallions will give bite without overwhelming flavor.

ROASTED PLUM TOMATO

Slice plum tomatoes in half, lengthwise, and remove the seeds. The simplest way is to use your thumbs to push out the pulp and seeds. Place the tomato halves cut side up on a baking sheet that has been lightly greased with olive oil. Lightly sprinkle them with extra-virgin olive oil and kosher salt and roast in 425-degree oven until most of the moisture has evaporated and the surfaces look dry. Place the tomato halves in a container and drizzle with additional olive oil. They will stay fresh for several days.

TAPENADE

If there’s a heaven, this must be the house appetizer. Cookbook author Lydie Marshall makes this simple tapenade. In a food processor, process 1 cup pitted Nicoise, Italian or Greek (not California) black olives with 8 anchovy fillets that have been patted dry, 2 teaspoons drained capers and 1 teaspoon of grappa or cognac. Spread about teaspoon each onto small toast rounds. A little goes a long way.

DICED BEET AND STILTON CHEESE

Just to show how versatile bruschetta can be, try this off-the-wall idea. Finely dice roasted fresh beets (or cheat and use canned). Mix them with chopped shallot, snipped chives, olive oil, a dash of vinegar and crumbled Stilton cheese.

RICOTTA CHEESE

To 1 cup of well-drained ricotta cheese, add salt, a good pinch of freshly ground black pepper and the zest of 1 lemon. After you spread the cheese mixture on the toasted bread base, top with a trickle of olive oil and a sprinkle of snipped chives.

WHITE BEAN

If the British can eat baked beans on toast, you can make an Italian version. Drain and rinse a can of cannellini beans and mix with 1 minced clove of garlic and chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, chives, basil and rosemary. Add a glug of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste. Just a pinch of red pepper flakes will add punch. If you have a bit of prosciutto, chop finely and add to the beans. Allow the mixture to mellow until serving time. One can of beans will make about 12 to 16 appetizers.

As for other toppings, the list is endless, but here’s a guide: Anything you would eat alongside a piece of garlic toast, you might as well pile on top of it.

Bruschetta with tomatoes, blue cheese and pecans

Bruschetta, or Italian garlic bread, is a perfect foundation for all sorts of wonderful toppings. This version uses a blend of cheeses mixed with pecans and topped with tomatoes and basil. Serve as an appetizer, with soup or with pasta. Use the best rustic or artisanal bread you can find and fruity extra-virgin olive oil.

2 ounces cream cheese, softened

cup crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons chopped pecans

4 slices crusty, firm-textured bread, cut about 3/4-inch thick

2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved

2 large tomatoes, sliced about ⅛-inch thick

Freshly ground pepper

Chopped fresh basil for garnish

In a small bowl, mash the cream and blue cheeses together with a fork, leaving the mixture somewhat chunky. Mix in the pecans. Preheat the broiler. Arrange the bread on a small baking sheet and broil the slices for about one minute on each side, just until golden. Watch carefully so the slices do not burn.

Rub one side of each piece of bread with the garlic. The rough surface of the bread will rasp the garlic and hold the flavors. Spread some of the cheese mixture over each slice and arrange 2 or 3 overlapping tomato slices on top. Pepper the tomatoes lightly, then garnish with basil and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

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