Friday, March 7, 2014
By RUSS PARSONS, McClatchy Newspapers
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 frantoio 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.
The possibilities for bruschetta toppings are almost limitless, especially at this time of year, when the markets are overflowing with the best of the fall harvest – tomatoes, eggplant, peppers.
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.
On the other hand, maybe they were crostini. As long as I've been pondering the difference between the two, I'm still not sure. My understanding (backed up by my tattered copy of "Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia") is that a bruschetta is a basic thing -- the only endorsed topping beyond the basic olive oil and salt is a little chopped tomato.
Crostini are fancier, more like canapes or cocktail snacks. Crostini may be more sophisticated, but the bruschetta retains a certain simple profundity. It's like the difference between a pop single and a folk song.
My definition may or may not be the same as yours. The good thing is that it really doesn't matter, we're free of such strictures in California. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't honor the philosophy. I may flout tradition by topping bruschetta with any number of unsanctioned ingredients, but I do try to remember that simpler is better. There is elegance in restraint.
As long as we're talking about bruschetta, please indulge me in a brief -- yes, certainly pedantic -- rant. In Italy, the combination "ch" is pronounced like a hard "c," so "bruschetta" is brew-SKET-a, or even, for the truly fastidious, brew-SKATE-a. Pronouncing it brew-SHET-a is like dragging your fingernails across a chalkboard, even though some very smart and very nice people do it. Chiaro?
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 abbondanza. 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 enough ways, and you've got a real bruschetta bar.
Guests can build their own, topping the bread with a little roasted eggplant or grilled pepper or chopped tomato. Then a smidgen of cheese and maybe a little torn basil or chopped mint. Or they can mix and match: That eggplant puree is delicious with a sliver of pepper.
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