A dreary November day in Umbria, Italy. On the shores of Lake Trasimeno, the holiday boats are pulled up and covered. We're visiting the olive press 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.
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 richness. 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 ways, and you've got a real bruschetta bar.
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 with olive oil.
Be careful when you're grilling the bread since it will scorch easily. 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 5 to 10 minutes to finish.
You can usually figure on 20 to 25 slices from a baguette.
Choose one spreadable cheese that has a really fresh clean flavor, such as a good brand of ricotta or a fresh goat cheese (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.
The most obvious way to cook eggplant for bruschetta is on the grill. It's probably also the easiest. Slice the eggplant about half an inch or three-quarters of an 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 -- about 5 to 7 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 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. Cut the eggplant into chunks, season lightly with salt and cook it in a tightly covered steamer until tender, about 5 minutes. While the eggplant is still 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 sauteing. 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.
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 5 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 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.
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 5 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 balsamic vinegar). 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. Saute 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.