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Bruschetta makes the most of fresh, local tomatoes

By the time summer hydrangeas have begun to fade we’re up to our eyeballs in fresh, local tomatoes. They are truly one of the season’s blazing triumphs.

The challenge is to make the most of this gift. Beyond a bounty of BLTs, there’s gazpacho by the gallon, decadent pinwheel platters of juicy tomato slices with fresh mozzarella, and endless bowls of plump Sun Golds with a cheddar chunk chaser. Life is good.

Another category of tomato cookery is bruschetta. In its most basic form, bruschetta is simply a slice of fire-toasted bread topped with olive oil, a rubbing of fresh garlic clove, salt, and a juicy tomato half that you rub onto the surface of the bread until the flavors and textures mingle into one big flavorful bite of heaven. But that is just the beginning, as you’ll see from the recipes that follow.

Bruschetta are served on a platter and presented as little appetizers, or even a central figure of a simple dinner. Bruschetta is so incredibly pure and simple that each of its components must be the very best. Its toasty underpinning must be filled with flavor and texture, and the ingredients on top, equally flavorful and perfect.

The components

THE BREAD: Go with a dense, textured bread with a crusty exterior. Cut 1/2- to 1-inch thick pieces. And depending on how hefty a serving you want to offer, cut the slices in thirds, halves or keep them whole.

THE TOASTING: “Bruscare” is Italian for cooking over an open fire. So if you want to maintain an authentic presentation (and the most flavor), the bread should be toasted on both sides over coals before uniting with the topping. Second best toasting experience would be a gas grill. But the extra layer of flavor created from time over coals is worth the effort. If you must, a toaster oven or broiler will do in a pinch.

THE OLIVE OIL: Because olive oil is a major player in bruschetta, use the good stuff. It should be extra-virgin, and full-flavored — either buttery/fruity or peppery, or a combination of both.

THE TOPPINGS: After toasting the bread, the most classic approach — during tomato season — is to scrape the surface of each toasted bread slice with a garlic clove for a whisper of garlic. Alongside the bread slices, arrange several tomato halves so each diner can rub the cut surface of a tomato half over the top of the toasted bread. The tomato juices and flesh smoosh together with the toasted crustiness of the bread to form a remarkable morsel that is gobbled down on the spot before the juice-infused toast has a chance to become completely soggy.

Another classic topping during tomato season is to combine diced tomato with chopped basil (or a spoonful of pesto), a sprinkling of salt and a drizzling of olive oil. I also like to drizzle on a bit of a balsamic vinegar reduction.

OTHER TOPPING IDEAS (after grilling both sides of the bread and brushing lightly with olive oil):

• Thin slices of Walla Walla Sweet onion, raw or grilled

• Thin slices of grilled eggplant (plain, or the recipe that follows)

• Thin slices of fresh Parmegiano-Reggiano, arugula, and a few drops of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar (or balsamic vinegar reduction, as prepared in the first recipe)

• Chopped tomato, bits of crispy bacon, arugula, combined with just a bit of mayonnaise or a sprinkling of Gorgonzola

• Thin slices of marinated artichoke, sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with lemon juice

• Imported Italian tuna, capers and arugula

Classic Tomato Bruschetta with Roasted Garlic Puree

Makes 8 generous servings

8 (1/2-inch thick) slices good-quality, crusty, Italian-style bread

About 1/4 cup Roasted Garlic Puree (recipe follows)

3 vine-ripe tomatoes (medium-sized), chopped and drained

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Pinch of salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar reduction (recipe follows)

About 3 tablespoons pesto, either commercially prepared or homemade (recipe follows)

Grill or toast the bread until nicely browned on both sides. Depending on the size of servings you want, either leave the bread slices whole or cut each one into halves or thirds. Spread each piece with a thin layer of the Roasted Garlic Puree.

Combine the tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Toss gently. Spoon the mixture onto the grilled bread slices. Drizzle each piece with some of the balsamic vinegar and pesto, then serve.

ROASTED GARLIC PUREE: Place 15 to 20 peeled garlic cloves on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of freshly ground black pepper and a pinch or two of salt. Gather up the edges of the foil to enclose the cloves without completely sealing the package shut (if it’s tightly sealed, the cloves will steam rather than roast and won’t develop as rich of a flavor). Place the packet of garlic over a medium-hot bed of coals (or in a gas grill, or in a 350-degree oven), and roast until the cloves are soft, about 20 to 25 minutes). Let the garlic and oil cool, then scrape it into a blender and blend until the mixture forms a puree, adding a little extra oil if necessary (alternatively, you can scrape the roasted cloves and the olive oil onto a plate and mash with a fork). Mixture can be prepared several weeks ahead and refrigerated until needed.

BALSAMIC VINEGAR REDUCTION: To turn an average balsamic vinegar into a very rich and flavorful one, pour 2 cups of balsamic vinegar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped yellow onion, 1 coarsely chopped clove of garlic, 2 teaspoons of sugar, and about 10 or 12 peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer until the mixture has reduced down to about 1/2 to 1/3 cup and is thickened and somewhat syrupy. Let the mixture cool and then strain through a fine sieve (press the onions and garlic with the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze out all of the juicy balsamic vinegar). Store the reduction in a tightly closed jar in the refrigerator. It will keep for months. Use it to drizzle over tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or to jazz up a vegetable saute or to drizzle over roasting vegetables. Makes 1/3 to 1/2 cup.

Classic Tomato Bruschetta

Makes 8 servings.

8 (1/2-inch thick) slices good-quality, crusty, Italian-style bread

1 garlic clove, peeled and halved

3 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, chopped and drained

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (or balsamic vinegar reduction)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Grill or toast the bread until nicely browned on both sides. Rub with the cut garlic.

When ready to serve, combine the tomatoes, olive oil, basil and vinegar in a small bowl. Toss gently and season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Spoon the mixture onto the grilled bread and serve immediately.

Jan’s Muffuleta Garlic-Olive Relish for Bruschetta

Makes about 1-1/2 cups — enough for 8 to 10 slices of toasted bread.

This is a zesty spin on simple tapenade. It’s kicked up a notch in garlic, olive oil and other goodies, and even makes a hearty condiment on a submarine sandwich concoction of Italian-style meats and cheeses.

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pimiento-stuffed olives

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted black olives

1/4 cup coarsely chopped red onion

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (more to taste)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons drained and rinsed capers

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1/4 teaspoon each salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place the olives, onion, parsley, vinegar, garlic, capers, oregano, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse the mixture until the ingredients are finely chopped. Add the olive oil and continue processing until the mixture is thoroughly chopped but not pureed. Adjust seasonings, adding additional vinegar if it needs a “zing,” or additional olive oil if the mixture seems too “sharp.” Will keep in the refrigerator for at least one month. Because the olive oil solidifies at low temperatures, remove from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Grilled Eggplant Bruschetta

Makes 12 servings.

2 small Italian eggplants (about 1/2 pound), with skin, cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick slices

1 tablespoon salt

12 (1/2-inch thick) slices good-quality, crusty, Italian-style bread

1 or 2 cloves of garlic, halved

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh basil

1/2 pound fresh or dry whole-milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

Season both sides of the eggplant slices with the salt and place them in a large bowl; set aside for 1 hour.

Place the salted eggplant slices on a baking sheet and set aside. Whisk the olive oil with the oregano, parsley and basil in a small bowl. Brush the eggplant slices on both sides lightly with some of the herb oil and grill until golden brown on both sides, turning once, 4 to 5 minutes total.

Grill or toast the bread until nicely browned on both sides. Rub with the cut garlic.

Brush the top side of the toasted bread with the remaining herb oil. Place eggplant slices on top of the bread slices, dividing them evenly. Arrange the mozzarella slices over the eggplant. Bake at 350 degrees just until the cheese melts; serve hot.

Adapted from “Eleanora’s Kitchen,” by Eleanora Russo Scarpetta.

Bruschetta with White Bean Puree and Sauteed Garlicky Greens

Makes 6 servings.

For the white bean puree:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 medium onion, peeled and minced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 (16 ounce) can cannellini beans, drained, or 2 cups cooked white beans

About 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt to taste

For the greens:

About 3 cups loosely packed mixed greens (such as spinach, arugula, and Swiss chard)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 (1/2- to 1-inch thick) slices good-quality crusty Italian-style bread, or 12 slices from a baguette, cut the same thickness, on a diagonal

2 garlic cloves peeled

Extra-virgin olive oil

For the bean puree, heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and minced garlic and saute over medium-low heat until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the beans and salt and continue cooking over medium-low heat until the beans are heated through and absorb the onion flavors, approximately 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the lemon juice and a sprinkling of salt. In a food processor or blender, briefly process the bean mixture to a coarse puree. Adjust seasonings, adding additional salt or lemon juice to taste.

For the garlicky greens, wash them well and remove any fibrous stems or ribs. Stack the leaves, then roll them up and slice across to make thin strips. Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the 2 cloves of minced garlic, along with the greens and salt to taste. Saute briefly to evenly coat the greens with the oil and garlic, then cover the skillet and cook over medium heat until the greens wilt and are tender. Remove from pan and set aside.

Grill or lightly toast the bread slices on both sides. Rub each with the whole garlic cloves, then drizzle or brush on a bit of olive oil. Spoon the white bean puree onto the grilled bread. Top each slice with some of the cooked greens. Makes 6 servings.

Adapted from Cucina Rustica,” by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman

Bruschetta Topped with Zucchini Puree and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Makes 6 servings.

In this dish, the zucchini is cooked with onion and herbs until it completely falls apart and turns into a rough puree. The puree is spooned onto the toasted bread and topped with thin slices of sun-dried tomato.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 small onion, peeled and chopped

2 medium zucchini, washed, ends sliced off, and coarsely sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

8 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 (1/2- to 1-inch thick) slices good-quality crusty Italian-style bread, or 12 slices from a baguette, cut the same thickness, on a diagonal

1 to 2 garlic cloves, peeled

Extra-virgin olive oil

6 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained, cut into thin strips

Gently heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a small saute pan. Add the onion and saute over medium-low until soft and translucent. Add the zucchini, garlic, basil and parsley. Saute briefly to evenly coat the zucchini with the oil and onion, then cover the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the zucchini becomes extremely soft and falls apart completely. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, prepare the bread by grilling or lightly toasting the slices on both sides. Rub the top side of each slice with the garlic cloves and drizzle or brush with olive oil. Spread the rough zucchini puree on the grilled bread. Garnish with the sun-dried tomatoes. Makes 6 servings.

Adapted from Cucina Rustica,” by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com or see her blog at www.janrd.com.

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