Flavours to the fore

Bruschetta, little slices of toasted bread with tasty toppings, is one of the many Italian foods we've adopted with enthusiasm and made our own. Nicky Pellegrino gives some tips for making these tasty morsels.

Traditional Italian food is all about simplicity.

It's a humble sort of cuisine really that relies on fresh flavours and quality ingredients.

That's why it translates so well to our Kiwi kitchens. Take bruschetta: this is the ultimate appetiser, it's ideal to feed the hordes at parties or for a casual lunch, and yet so easy to put together with ingredients you have on hand in your store cupboard. Jars of marinated chargrilled vegetables, flavoured oils and olives are available in good supermarkets.

In Italy they have been eating bruschetta (which is pronounced brusketta by the way) for hundreds of years. The word comes from the Italian bruciare which means ''to burn'' and originally a bruschetta was as basic as a slice of stale bread, grilled over a fire, then rubbed with garlic and drizzled with new-season olive oil. Things have got a lot more exciting since then and now bruschetta is served around the world with endless combinations of toppings.

There aren't really any rules when it comes to bruschetta. You can use any kind of bread. However, the ideal would be a robust country-style or sourdough loaf. Slice the bread just over 1cm thick and toast on a barbecue, beneath a grill or even in your toaster until crisp on both sides.

Keep an eye on it as the bread burns easily - although a few charred bits will add to the flavour.

Then lightly rub with a cut clove of garlic, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. This is your basic bruschetta that you can then dress up however you like.

If you are serving the bruschetta as party food, then it makes sense not to pile up the toppings as it can be tricky to eat. Better to prepare several different varieties rather than try to cram lots of ingredients on to a single slice.

I would also caution against overdoing the raw garlic. A couple of rubs will suffice as raw garlic has an overpowering flavour and really you only want a hint of it.

The other concern is preventing the bruschetta from going soggy. It pays not to cut the bread too thin or glug on too much olive oil and if you're using tomatoes you may want to squeeze out the excess juice and/or remove the seeds first.

Think about colour as well as flavour combinations when putting together a bruschetta. The toppings can be as modest or lavish as you like, from squashed tomatoes, fresh herbs and marinated vegetables to cheeses, smoked fish or cooked meats.

For speed and convenience make use of the prepared pesto sauces, toppings and bruschetta dips you can pick up at your supermarket.


Bruschetta to try

• Take some ripe, flavourful tomatoes then remove the cores, carefully squeeze out their seeds and chop chunkily. Mix with a little herb vinegar and layer on to your bruschetta with torn basil leaves.

This is also excellent topped with fresh mozzarella then popped under the grill until lightly melted. If your tomatoes are a bit lacklustre, wake up their flavour by adding a few chopped sundried tomatoes into the mix.

• If you love a hit of chilli use red pepper and jalapeno bruschetta dip as a base, topped with squashed cherry tomatoes, thin slices of crisply fried chorizo sausage and finely chopped flat-leaf parsley.

• Drain a jar of marinated artichoke hearts and chop roughly (or simply use an artichoke bruschetta dip). Then top with crumbled feta and sprinkle with finely-chopped flat-leafed parsley. Drizzling this with a lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil will give it extra zing.

• Cook some frozen garden peas and mash roughly with a fork. Spread on to bruschetta. Top with torn fresh mint leaves and thin shards of Parmesan or pecorino cheese. You could use smashed broad beans rather than peas but these are more fiddly as you have to remove the tough outer skin from each bean first.

• Finely chop chargrilled red capsicum and eggplant and mix with a splash of herb or white balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of dried oregano. Smear across the bruschetta and top with sliced green olives and another sprinkle of oregano. Chargrilled vegetables in jars are ideal to save on preparation time.

• For a double dose of asparagus smear with asparagus bruschetta dip then top with chargrilled or steamed asparagus spears, shaved Parmesan and thin slices of red onion. Soak the red onion slices in lemon juice for 10 minutes first and they will lose some of their sting plus take on a lovely translucence. For this bruschetta you will want your asparagus to be a little softer than you might have it in a salad or as a side dish. If it's out of season you can buy it ready-chargrilled in jars.

• For a luxurious treat spread bruschetta with cream cheese then top with slices of smoked salmon, capers and some feathers of fresh dill. You can use any sort of smoked fish as a topping, however. Turn it into a roughly textured paste by removing the skin and bones, then flaking and mixing with lemon juice, chopped chives, a little creamed horseradish, butter and cream cheese and whizzing in a food processor. Top with a few rocket or baby spinach leaves tossed in vinaigrette or drizzled with a red wine vinegar.

• Drain a can of cannellini beans, rinse well and puree with a stick blender or roughly mash them with a fork. Take a bunch of silverbeet, remove the stalks and boil them until softened in a large pot of boiling water with a couple of whole garlic cloves. Add the silverbeet leaves at the last moment as they only need a minute or two. Smear bruschetta with white bean puree, squeeze excess water from the cooked silverbeet and roughly chop then pile on top along with the sliced cooked garlic cloves. Dress this with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a drizzle of rosemary-infused extra virgin olive oil.

• Chop some cherry tomatoes - use different colours if you can get them - along with some pitted black Kalamata olives. Smear bruschetta with marinated feta, top with the tomato and olive mix plus a sprinkle of torn basil leaves. Intensify the flavour by drizzling with a basil-infused extra virgin olive oil.

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