November 8th, 2007 by Potato

Bruschetta can be a very simple dish, or one of intermediate complexity. A huge number of variations exist, and I hardly ever have a plate of bruschetta that is the same at even the same restaurant at different weeks, let alone at different ones. At its very heart, bruschetta is a dish of bread and spiced tomatoes, most commonly with heavy garlic, basil, and onions. It can be served hot, or cold, with or without cheese, on thick slices of italian bread to pizza dough to thin flatbread.

Before getting to my recipe for bruschetta, I’d like to go over some of the things that do and don’t work in the varying applications of bruschetta.

The first is temperature. While I greatly prefer hot (especially if cheese is involved), cold can work surprisingly well, too. However, in my own kitchen I have a terrible habit of over-cooking the tomatoes while waiting for the cheese to bubble. Some work-arounds to this can include using a higher oven temperature to sear the cheese before the tomatoes turn to mush, using larger slices of tomatoes, and of course, taking it out when the cheese is merely melted, rather than bubbling.

The main ingredient for any successful bruschetta must be tomatoes. The tomatoes can be chopped finely, into 2 mm cubes, or left as large 3 cm chunks, or even as full slices of tomato. Under no circumstances, though, should sauce, or worse yet, salsa be substituted for actual tomatoes. The Firkin did this at some point during my undergrad, and I stopped eating there because of it (I couldn’t even bring myself to order fries or something else off the menu after they brought out that monstrous salsa bread). Almost as bad was the bruschetta at the Dubliner in Ottawa, which was mostly a piece of flatbread smeared with (bad) pesto sauce, sprinkled very lightly with small chunks of tomato. A good example is the bruschetta found at Bertoldi’s in London, with a thin pizza dough base (~6 mm thick) topped by mountains (~25 mm) of tomatoes. I’ve never encountered the case in person where “bruschetta” was presented as a piece of toasted bread that was brushed with olive oil, with no mention of tomatoes, though some sites on the internet say that’s what “traditional” bruschetta is. To me, that’s “garlic bread”, and in North America at least, that old definition no longer applies. Tomatoes are mandatory :)

What makes up the rest of the bruschetta mix is open to interpretation and individualization. Garlic is of course, virtually mandatory, but some classic recipes call for the bread to be rubbed with the garlic, but not for any actual garlic to be present in the mix. For modern cooks, garlic powder can be substituted to give it the flavour without pulling out the press or chopping it. Basil is a big part of the flavour, and can be added as dried flakes to whole fresh leaves. Other common herbs are parsley and oregano. Onions are the next most common ingredient, and I would have said they were also necessary, except that a friend of mine makes a passable bruschetta without them. Pretty much no matter how large one chooses to chop the tomatoes, the onions should be kept to a fine chop. Olive oil of course plays a roll as well, and I, along with most restaurants, add it in with the rest of the mixture to coat the tomatoes, though some use it to brush the bread (particularly when the bread is cooked but the tomatoes are not).

That’s pretty much the core of any bruschetta. Peppers (sweet and even sometimes hot) are a common visitor. Olives can make an appearance as well, but when I see them I order them held — their oil is fantastic, but they are not very appetizing beyond that. Bacon bits are also freakishly common, and don’t really fit IMNSHO — in part because bruschetta is a great vegetarian staple, available nearly everywhere fries aren’t, and in part because it brings bruschetta just a little too close to a messy open-faced BLT. Anchovies? The answer is no in any situation, and this is no exception.

When it comes to cheese, I prefer it with a light sprinkling of cheese when served hot, and without when served cold (especially if it’s heated and then allowed to cool while the server disappears for a half hour while the cheese resolidifies… ugh). Mozzarella and parmesan are the big players in popularized Italian/American food, and they are of course my first picks to go with bruschetta. Asiago, cheddar, romano, and bocconcini can also play excellent minor roles, particularly in harmony with the first two. Feta is far more popular than it deserves to be, and I’ll always order mine without it. Likewise, throwing on goat’s cheese seems to be more about trying to make a statement that your cook has fancy pants than an actual effort to improve the flavour.

The base for bruschetta can go a long way in differentiating it from that of other chefs. Baguettes, thick slices of Italian bread, specialized buns, flatbread, and pizza dough all work very well with a bruschetta topping. When done really well, I think my personal favourite is a pizza dough-like base, or a ciabatta or focaccia-like one, but when done wrong, those can sometimes backfire. The juices from the tomatoes and olive oil can sometimes make a thin flatbread or pizza dough mushy, and a ciabatta-like bun base can get rock-hard, especially in the corners. Biting hard into bruschetta can make an already messy food a disaster. Italian slices are a pretty safe bet.

So, with the ranting and raving out of the way, here is my recipe for bruschetta:

Pick a bread base (half-cooked pizza dough — starting from raw dough will usually over-cook the bruscetta mixture — or italian bread sliced about 1″ thick). Toast it a bit before adding the topping.

Topping: 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped. 1-2 medium-large tomatoes, chopped. 1/4 of a red onion (or half a small yellow onion) finely chopped. 1/8 of a sweet pepper (red or orange) finely chopped. 2 tbsp olive oil. Oregano, parsley, and basil to taste, about 1 tbsp each (working from dried flakes here). A bit of ground black pepper, and if adventurous, a bit of spice (a few red pepper flakes). Stir it all together in a bowl (this amount will usually fit in a cereal bowl). Spoon on to the bread fairly thick, and top with cheese if desired. Finish cooking in a 400°F oven (should be about 5 minutes).

Serves about 4-6 appetizer sized portions, or 1-2 meal portions. The mix, once all the veggies are chopped, will keep in the fridge for a day or two.

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