A Simple Italian Classic
If you're looking for a great appetizer, hors d'oeuvre, or small plate offering for your next party, family gathering, or just as a snack, look no further than the simple Italian classic bruschetta. Enjoyed hot or tiepido (room temperature), bruschetta is delicious and versatile as well as being quick and easy to prepare. In its most basic form, it's the original Italian “garlic bread.” Add some toppings and you can almost turn it into a full course of its own.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of preparation, let's clear up one major detail: the word “bruschetta,” derived from the Italian verb “bruscare,” is not, has never been, and never will be pronounced “broo-SHET-uh.” Regardless of the way any server at any fast casual or faux-Italian restaurant in the United States pronounces it, the proper pronunciation is “broo-SKET-ah.” Actually, if you want to be completely correct and Italian about it, it would be “broo-SKEHT-tah,” but the anglicized version is close enough to keep Italians from cringing.
“Bruscare” means to roast over coals, so if you have a charcoal grill handy, you're all set. Since, however, it is usually frowned upon to fire up a grill indoors, you'll be fine if you just use your broiler, oven, toaster oven, or even a grill pan – anything that will toast bread to a nice golden color.
As to the bread, a good crusty, rustic loaf is essential. You can't make bruschetta from gummy white sandwich bread. You've got to have something like a baguette, a boule, an Italian loaf, or some other kind of artisan or “country-style” bread. Something you can slice up nice and thick. And the thickness of the slice counts when it comes to piling on the toppings. “Crostini,” or “little toasts,” can be thin and delicate. Bruschette (that's the plural form of “bruschetta”) are meant to be thick and hearty.
When it comes to toppings, the sky's the limit. Olive oil is pretty much a default. In fact, some people believe that bruschetta has its origins in ancient Rome, where olive growers bringing their olives to market for pressing would sample the taste of the freshly pressed oil on chunks of toasted bread. From there you can add on garlic, herbs, tomatoes, cheese, cured meat, anchovies, salmon, olives, capers – the list is limited only by your taste and creativity.
At its most basic, bruschetta is the original “garlic bread.” There is no such thing in Italian cuisine as the “garlic bread” served in American Italian restaurants. Cheap bread slathered to the point of sogginess with garlic flavored butter is something you'll never find on an Italian table, no matter how “authentic” your local eatery claims to be. Real Italian “garlic bread” is just a simple bruschetta, prepared with four ingredients: bread, garlic, olive oil, and salt.
To start, slice your bread about 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch thick and toast it by whatever means you've chosen. Both sides, please. Next, while the bread is still warm, peel a clove of fresh garlic and cut an end off the clove. Lightly rub the cut end of the garlic clove over the surface of your toasted bread. One side or the other is fine; you don't have to do both sides. Don't overdo it. Fresh garlic is powerful stuff and it's easy to go from “flavorful” to “garlicky.” You may like “garlicky,” but not everyone does, so a light hand is better than a heavy one. Now brush the prepared side with a light coating of good quality olive oil. Don't soak it or saturate it: you just want the flavor of the oil. Finally, sprinkle a few grains of coarse salt, like Kosher salt, over the top to finish. And that's it: real Italian “garlic bread.” If you want to throw a little Italian seasoning or oregano on there to gild the lily, go for it. Or you can add some mozzarella cheese on top and stick it back under the broiler until the cheese melts and gets just a little golden brown. Tah-dah! Garlic cheese bread!
There's a little controversy over method here. Some schools will tell you to oil the bread before you toast it. Others say toast first, then oil, the theory being that toasting the bread with the oil on it will affect the flavor of the oil. I've done it both ways and can't really tell much of a difference. That said, I do tend to be a proponent of the “toast first” method.
The most classic form of bruschetta is Bruschetta Pomodoro, or Tomato Bruschetta. And it begins with the procedure you just read. The difference is, in this case you definitely want the mozzarella. If you prefer, you can use fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano instead of mozzarella. And instead of oregano or Italian seasoning, you'll need some basil. Fresh is best but dried is okay. And, of course, some tomatoes. Red or yellow, or a mix of both, chopped or cut to a fine dice. (“Brunoise” is the fancy-pants French culinary term for it.)
Toast your bread and prepare it with the olive oil, garlic, and salt as described above. Add the mozzarella – or whatever cheese you've chosen – and put it back under or in the heat source to melt the cheese. (A broiler or oven works best: you really don't want to put cheese in your toaster.) While the cheese is melting, mix the tomatoes and basil together. If you're using fresh basil, just tear up a few leaves. If you're going with dried basil, a little goes a long way. Once the cheese has melted and browned a bit, remove the bread from the broiler/oven and top it with the tomato-basil mixture. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar adds a nice little zing, but that's just a “serving suggestion.” Serve warm or at room temperature.
As I said, you can top a bruschetta with just about anything. Prosciutto and mozzarella (or Parmesan) is good. (You know, ham and cheese?) A little smoked salmon, maybe, with some sour cream and capers? Heck, bruschetta is even a good vehicle for egg salad or grilled vegetables – think open-faced sandwich and go from there.
Here's something a little different: bruschetta with gorgonzola and honey. Prepare your basic plain bruschetta and top it with gorgonzola cheese instead of mozzarella. Melt the cheese as suggested and then drizzle the finished product with a little honey. Gorgonzola, arugula, and raisins are also a tasty option, especially with a little red wine vinaigrette.
If you're a fan of fungus, try some mushrooms. Cook up a batch of your favorites and slap 'em on top of the aforementioned toasted, oiled, salted bread.
A little white bean salad makes a great bruschetta topping as does tuna with a little lemon and some capers.
You can even make dessert bruschetta. In these instances, you will probably want to 86 the oil, garlic, and salt. Just toast up the bread and top it with Nutella. Or, if you feel fancy, mix some ricotta with powdered sugar, orange zest, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture on your toasted bread and finish with slices of orange and some shaved chocolate or mini chocolate chips.
Inspired yet? I am. Excuse me while I go heat up the broiler.