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by Elliot Essman
Italians love Bruschetta, but even before they rave about how simple, yet delicious, these toasted bread creations are, they'll lecture you on how to pronounce the word properly. There's logic to it; the word Bruschetta is derived from the Italian verb, bruscare, meaning to roast over coals, so the proper way to pronounce the word is "bruce ketta," with no "sh" sound as is often heard. The Italian plural is bruschette.

Once the dish has been properly pronounced, the appropriate way to eat Bruschetta is with enthusiasm. Bruschetta variations are found all over Italy, especially in the north (in Tuscany they call them fett'unta, which means "under oil"); like pizza, it's perfectly all right to concoct your own variations, as long as you do not invite Italian purists to your table. Unlike pizza, which requires careful dough handling and precise oven temperature monitoring, bruschetta benefit from the forgiving nature of their primary raw ingredient: bread.

Like a basic pizza, which in Italy lacks the fuss and topping selection we favor in America, basic Italian bruschette are as simple as they are elegant. You start with an Italian bread, several days old, and cut it into slices about three inches in diameter and one inch thick. Have one or two cloves of garlic handy, already peeled. To toast the bread, a grill is ideal, but you can also use a wide toaster or use your oven's broiler; you'll be charring both sides of the bread. Once you've made your toast, while the pieces are still warm, rub the tops and crusty sides of the toast pieces with the garlic, drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle the tops of the bruschette with good quality sea salt. That's it; if everything you use is of top quality, and if the oil and garlic are fresh, you will melt the bruschetta purist's heart, or even become a purist yourself.

For bruschetta, the only oil to use is extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin is the most expensive variety, but bruschetta requires relatively little. Extra virgin olive oil is the result of the first, cold pressing of the ripe, green olive. Since the olives are not heated, or subjected to chemical additions (as is the case with later pressings), the resulting oil is of the finest quality in terms of both taste and nutrition. Virgin olive oil, from the second pressing, stands up better to the heat of cooking and gives better value when larger amounts of olive oil are needed. The rule of thumb is that if you're eating the oil uncooked, drizzled on salads, antipasti, or as a final garnish on a hot dish like pasta or fish, extra virgin olive oil is the only choice.

Any oil can go rancid relatively quickly; extra virgin olive oil is particularly delicate in this regard. If you don't have a "cool, dark, place" in which to store your oil, you may keep it in the refrigerator, preferably in an area removed from foods that could pass their odor on to the oil. The cold will make the oil cloud up, but it will clear once removed to room temperature. Buy your extra virgin olive oil in small bottles, even if you end up paying more per ounce. Rancid oil takes the snap out of any dish.

Garlic, which is not particularly expensive, should also be fresh, for any use. The best rule of thumb to ensure you use fresh garlic is to buy it right before you use it; it doesn't keep its flavor very long when stored. Garlic does not react well to refrigeration or freezing, so the cool, dry, well-ventilated place is your only storage option; even so, a whole, unopened garlic bulb will only keep for about eight weeks, a peeled clove only a day or two. In choosing garlic, avoid the so-called "elephant garlic," the huge variety which is actually a type of leek; it's much too mild for Italian cooking. Buy only firm, robust garlic bulbs with dry skins. You should be able to feel firm, unbroken garlic cloves inside the bulb.

To peel a clove of garlic elegantly for your bruschetta, the best method is to find your heaviest chef's knife or cleaver, lay the knife's flat side over the clove, then give the knife a good hard thump with your fist or the heel of your hand. The garlic peel ought to slip right off. Most chefs will also snip off the hard end of the garlic clove with a paring knife, but this is not strictly necessary when you use the garlic for hand rubbing. Toasted bread for bruschetta should be hardy enough to stand up to some pressure when you rub in the garlic, though you may want to rub a little less vigorously if your diners are not garlic devotees. I like a simple once-over to give my bruschetta a garlic tinge without turning it into a garlic dish.

Once you master the basic garlic, olive oil and salt bruschetta, a whole world of variations will open up. You could, for example, give your bruschetta a southwestern flair by topping it with jalapeņo salsa and melted jack cheese, or make it Hawaiian by topping it with glazed ham and pineapple; celebrity chefs do this kind of thing all the time with pizza. I don't recommend these types of variations, however, because I believe bruschetta should remain both simple and Italian.

A frequent variation you'll often find in Italian restaurants involves bruschetta with tomato and basil. To top eight to twelve bruschette, begin by scalding three or four large tomatoes in boiling water for sixty seconds, then plunge the tomatoes into a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking process. The skins should peel off easily. Coarsely chop the tomatoes. You can also use canned Italian tomatoes, in which case you can crush them with your fingers (if this isn't fun, what is?). In a bowl, mix the tomatoes, a dozen leaves of hand-torn fresh basil, a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, and two teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for at least half an hour so the flavors can meld, then spoon onto the bruschetta. Add diced onions or shallots for a further variation.

For bruschetta that mirrors the flavor combinations of the classic pizza Margherita, lightly brush the toast with tomato sauce, strew on shredded mozzarella and torn bits of basil, and broil just long enough to melt the cheese. Too much cheese will overpower the delicate flavor of the basil; try to keep the ingredients in balance.

Since garlic is one of the basic flavor components of the toast portion of bruschetta, it can also serve as an excellent topping. To make roasted garlic, cut the tops off two garlic bulbs in order to expose the tops of the cloves. Place the garlic bulbs in a small baking dish and add enough water to cover the bottom third of the bulbs. Drizzle the tops of the bulbs with olive oil, and cover with aluminum foil, punching a few small holes in the foil to let the steam escape. Bake at 350 degrees until the bulbs are tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Let the garlic cool, remove the individual cloves, and mash them in a bowl with a third of a cup of extra virgin olive oil and half a teaspoon of salt. Spread the mixture onto the bruschetta, garnishing with flakes of a good Italian grating cheese.

Just as garlic can serve bruschetta both above and below the toast line, so can olives. Try spreading an olive tapenade over the bruschetta, stud it with finely diced shallots, and finish with a sprinkle of fresh oregano or marjoram. To make an olive tapenade, combine two cups of black, brine-cured pitted olives (nicoise, kalamata), four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, two tablespoons of drained, rinsed capers, one half teaspoon fresh thyme, one tablespoon marsala wine, and four anchovy fillets. Pulse the ingredients together in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Replace the olives with marinated artichoke hearts or mushrooms for a variation.

The right time to eat your bruschetta depends on the degree of culinary ambition you put into it. Heap mushrooms, ricotta, zucchini, sardines or other substantial foods on top of the toast and you've got lunch or dinner. If you keep it simple, bruschetta becomes the ideal cocktail snack or appetizer. My favorite time for bruschetta is early evening, that trying time when lunch has faded into dim memory and dinner is still just a concept. My next favorite time is any time. Top -- Food Articles Home

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