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Home with the Lost Italian: Flavor mashup — California Bruschetta puts West Coast twist on Italian favorite

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We’ve just returned from a wonderful Italian vacation in Sicily and Rome, where the focus on food is always driven by what is in season. Right now, both here and in Italy, that means the arrival of one of our favorite summer foods: garden-fresh tomatoes.

Tomatoes were a main part of our diet throughout our time in Italy, where we enjoyed them pureed in a sauce for pizza or pasta, cut into large slices for a caprese salad, stewed with peppers and eggplant in a savory caponata or, as in today’s featured recipe, diced and served as a topping for bruschetta.

Native to the Americas, the tomato is believed to have been introduced to Italy in the 16th century when it was brought back to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors. The Italians quickly adopted it into their cuisine — and so effectively that many people today associate this succulent vine fruit with Italy.

Bruschetta, pronounced “broo-SKET-ah” in Italy or “broo-shett-ah” in the U.S., is an Italian antipasto dish that features grilled bread with any variety of toppings. While the inspiration for today’s recipe is Italian, I’ve named this appetizer California Bruschetta thanks to the addition of avocados in the topping mix.

We were struck by the similarities in the terrain, climate and agriculture between Sicily and southern California, specifically the area around the Santa Monica mountains. Arid and rocky yet still lush with vegetation, both regions grow an abundance of tomatoes along with citrus like lemons, oranges and limes, as well as grapes, olives and almonds. However, while Sicily’s climate, like California’s, makes it more than suitable for avocado production, you won’t find this crop growing there commercially.

Sicily may be the Mediterranean’s largest island, but it is still an island and due to limited space, farmers opt to produce more profitable crops instead. But that doesn’t mean avocados aren’t used in its cuisine, as we delightfully experienced on two occasions during our visit — first in a seafood salad, and again in a guacamole.

You can use any type of fresh tomato for this recipe, but we prefer smaller varieties like cherry, pear and grape, which are available now at most farmers markets in an array of colors. We cut the tomatoes into quarters, and using small tomatoes means that each piece still has some of the peel on it, which enhances the topping’s texture and keeps it from becoming mushy.

Ciabatta is our go-to bread for bruschetta, especially in the summer months, which you can find at Breadsmith in Fargo (our favorite) or in the specialty bread section of most grocery stores. This Italian artisan bread is crusty, thin and long, which makes it perfect for grilling.

The topping is a simple mix of fresh tomatoes, avocados, fresh basil, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and red wine vinegar. The acid from the vinegar pulls all the flavors together and helps keep the sliced avocados from browning. A drizzle of balsamic reduction adds a dramatic flourish just before serving, but a splash of extra-virgin olive oil will also suffice.

Simple, delicious and beautiful, this California Bruschetta is a great way to start your summer meal and showcase the best of Italy and California.

“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.

California

Bruschetta

Ingredients for the topping

3 pints mixed cherry and grape tomatoes, assorted colors if possible, quartered

2 avocados, peels and pit removed, medium-diced

2 tablespoons fresh basil, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

½ teaspoon kosher Salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Ingredients for the bruschetta

1 loaf of ciabatta bread, cut in half lengthwise

Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing

Pinch of kosher salt

Pinch of black pepper

Optional garnish

Balsamic reduction

To prepare the grill, clean off any grime, brush the grill with vegetable oil (to prevent the bread from sticking) and preheat on high setting. Next, prepare the topping so that it’s ready as soon as the ciabatta is grilled.

In a large bowl, add all the topping ingredients and gently toss until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until bread is ready.

Use a brush to coat the top of each ciabatta half with olive oil, covering the entire surface. Sprinkle each half with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. Place loaves on hot grill, top side down, and cook until light golden brown and grill marks are achieved, about 5 minutes.

Remove bread from grill and transfer to a cutting board. Spread the tomato-avocado mixture evenly over the top of each half, making sure to include some of the juices. Drizzle the top lightly with olive oil and balsamic reduction (if using), then cut into individual slices and serve immediately.

For the Balsamic Reduction

2 cups regular balsamic vinegar (not high-end, aged variety)

Place the vinegar in a small saucepan and cook over high heat until it reaches a boil. Lower heat to a gentle simmer and cook until the vinegar has reduced by half, and a syrupy consistency is achieved, approximately 20 minutes. Transfer to a squeeze bottle, if available, and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

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