Extra Virgin on Wheels: Bruschetta To Go

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This week on Extra Virgin, Debi and I volunteer our time for an important Los Angeles charity, Midnight Mission. Our contribution is to cook up a few Italian specialities and sell them on the Vesuvio Food Truck to a very hungry crowd. All the proceeds are going to The Midnight Mission!

On the menu are Turkey Meatballs, risotto croquettes or Arancini, and Sautéed Mushroom Bruschetta.

Meatballs and arancini are real treats in Tuscany, but  bruschetta is a staple. It's served in every home; in every bar as early as 11 am, when people get out of the office for a glass of prosecco or a traditional spuma (a light Italian soda); and as an appetizer for every event you might attend. But any time of the day is good for bruschetta, and the variety of toppings used is incredibly abundant, and seasonal.

The traditional bruschetta is topped with chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil. But it is also easy to come across bruschetta topped with mushrooms, black kale, cannellini beans, sausage and stracchino, a soft cheese.

I remember coming home from school when I was a kid, doing my homework and ending up on the kitchen floor playing LEGOS with my brother. If we were starving and dinner was not yet ready, guess what our mom would serve us... you got it— bruschetta.

What fascinates me the most about bruschetta is its origin. In medieval times, servants living and working in private homes did not own anything but a blanket to cover themselves with at night, basically one step above slavery. They did not own plates or silverware, and their diet mainly consisted of dinner scraps. They loaded slices of simple, unsalted bread—in those times, salt was a precious currency that only the wealthy could afford—with whatever sauce and leftovers they found in the pots and pans used to cook their employers' dinner. And this is what bruschetta is: unsalted peasant bread, covered with simple sauces, leftovers, or anything else that pleases.

It is really not so different from  scarpetta, the tradition of cleaning your plate after a meal with a piece of bread. You would never clear a plate with a few remaining bits of delicious sauce at the bottom.

In Tuscany the tradition has remained the same, and bruschetta is only served on unsalted bread. Here in the U.S., things are a bit different. I tried everywhere to find simple wood-fire baked unsalted bread, but it appears that a flavorless loaf is not something that appeals to many. I have my own recipe, which I will have to share soon. I bake it at least twice a month, not so much for the flavor—again, it has none—but more for the memories that it brings back to me. (Also it is good for my diet—how could you stuff yourself on bread that has no flavor?)

In Tuscany, it is not mandatory to toast the bread for bruschetta. However, I grew up on a farm where there's a tradition every November and December to celebrate the first press of our olive oil. It is a really big deal, and we honor our liquid gold by toasting slices of bread in the fireplace, and pairing them with the fresh olive oil, boiled cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale), and a few glasses of vino novello (new wine). It has been a tradition for my family since I can remember, and I miss it very much!

One thing I have seen hunters do in Tuscany is shoot a couple of loads of pellets into an old pan, which they will then use to toast bread or chestnuts during winter! If you'd like to toast your bread for bruschetta, you can either broil it quickly in your oven, or on a grill. I would not recommend using a regular electric toaster, as I find it dries up the bread too much.

There are really no secrets, special tricks or limitations to the kind of sauces and toppings you can try on your bruschetta. Make it a personal affair, and make sure to dress it with the best olive oil you can get your hands on. One of my personal favorites, usually prepared in the midst of winter, is with rabbit stew. It is delicate, yet loaded with flavors and aromas of herbs like fresh bay leaves and rosemary. It is a real traditional hunter's recipe.

One tip: Never assemble your bruschetta too long before serving it—the bread will get soggy! This can be a real problem, not just for overall texture, but also for your guests when the bread tears and the topping spills all over! Slice the bread and set it aside, and keep your topping of choice in a bowl until you are ready to serve it.

The real beauty of  bruschetta is that it is always appropriate to serve—a dish of very humble origin that is enjoyed by everybody. It is inexpensive, quick to prepare, allows for creativity, and is a great way to finish your leftovers.

Buon Appetito!

Watch Gabriele and Debi Mazar cook meals from their home every Wednesday night at 10pm ET/ 9pm CT on Cooking Channel.

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