Out of Italy: Bruschetta and friends
If you’re a serious foodie and have gone out for Italian, you’ve probably had that classic face-palm moment when your unenlightened companions mispronounce “bruschetta” (it’s pronounced brus-k-etta, by the way). Bruschetta is probably the most familiar variation of the classic Mediterranean combination of crusty, grilled bread and a normally vegetable and oil-based topping, but I’d like to introduce you to a few other fun variations on this dish, some of which should be easy enough to pronounce while others may have even the most dedicated left stumped.
First off, though, I’d like to introduce a little history. Bruschetta and friends are really the quintessential rustic food for the warmer latitudes. Historically the rural population turned toward combinations of fats, cheap carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, and starchy vegetables, and whatever else they could scrounge up to keep themselves alive. Whereas this manifested in northerly climates as the infamous fat-based puddings and pies, in Mediterranean climates where the supply of animal fat was low and the availability of produce and olive oil significantly higher, dishes like tapas and bruschetta dominated.
The base of a traditional bruschetta is a slice of crusty bread, typically from a loaf going stale. Grilled on an open-flame grill (or, if you don’t happen to live in a Mediterranean climate, a griddle), it then receives a topping that thoroughly soaks the bread. The bruschetta topping is highly variable, based on ingredient availability and season. Most typical is olive oil, tomato, garlic and/or onions, though in Italy there are also more exotic varieties that haven’t necessarily made the transition to American plates; we’re talking versions with charcuterie, offal (typically a pork-based pâté), cheese, beans, and (especially in Sicily) red peppers. Really when you’re considering making bruschetta you should put yourself in the mindset of a poor Italian peasant: use what you have at hand! Any combination of Mediterranean spices, vegetables and olive oil will probably taste pretty awesome.
Outside of Italy the theme continues with a whole bunch of variation. Catalonia might be known for its seafood, but highland peasants tended to eat more escalivada (es-cali-vada) than fish. A thick mixture of thoroughly grilled (literally until the outsides are blackened) vegetables and oil can be used as a spread on grilled bread or in a “bread salad” similar to caprese. Most recipes I’ve seen use eggplant, pepper, onion, and/or tomato, forming a paste much like a pâté. This recipe is great in the summer when you can camp out around a fire or grill; but it also makes a great accompaniment to jamón serrano and other Spanish meat. In Mediterranean France another bruschetta-like dish is tartine; the version typical in Provence combines a tapenade (fancy word for olive paste) with tuna or anchovy. French cuisine also includes croûton, which outside of salads refers to any lightly fried/roasted slice of bread and often refers to a bruschetta-like dish using these slices. In the Basque country of Spain and France, the pintxo (pint-cho) is the local variation on tapas (themselves of similar origin to bruschetta). Typical tapas ingredients like tortilla (the Spanish kind, with egg and potato), vegetables, and skewered fish, which all can be served over a slice of toasted bread.
Since its origins in rural households, the idea of bruschetta has really expanded into a whole world of creative combinations of crusty bread and toppings. Whether they stick to using simple, seasonal ingredients for a delicious savory appetizer or venture boldly into the realm of sweet toppings like fruit, these easy and versatile dishes should be high on the list of great options for college students, especially if you want to impress a date (check out our recipes section for more student-friendly ideas). Also, here’s a video recipe for a great mushroom ricotta bruschetta by Food Wishes:
Cover photo source.