I love hors d’oeuvres, and yet I struggle with them every time I’m planning a menu. What can I make that people can eat while they mingle, that will please everyone’s tastes, and that won’t keep me holed up in the kitchen? Thankfully, Italians came up with the answer: bruschetta. It’s a brilliantly simple concept for summer entertaining. You toast good bread on the grill, rub it with a clove of garlic, and drizzle on your best extra-virgin olive oil. It’s that simple, and if you haven’t tried this before, believe me, grilled bread with garlic and olive oil is plenty delicious. But there’s no need to stop there. Instead of, or in addition to, the garlic and oil, I prepare a bunch of toppings for the grilled bread, anything from the traditional tomato, basil, and mozzarella combo to something more unexpected, like a fig and walnut spread.
A trio of bruschetta (pronounced broo-SKET-tah) is an excellent way to begin a casual outdoor party, especially if you’re serving grilled food anyway, and it’s easy to carry off if you’re organized. But bruschetta doesn’t just have to be a starter—it can be a great component of a casual summer menu, too.
The key to stress-free entertaining at the grill is to act as though you’re setting up camp. Once I’m in the backyard, I’d rather not scurry in and out of the house trying to pull together a meal out of two kitchens. Prepare as much as you can inside, and then move everything else you’ll need outside: cutting board, bread knife, olive oil, salt, pepper, baking sheets, serving platters, and all of your toppings. All you’ll need to do as the bread comes off the grill is add the final touches and pass them or set them out for your guests.
Traditional bruschetta is served just like this, hot off the grill. You can always grill the bread in advance (and truth be told, you can even toast it under the broiler) if timing or space on the grill is an issue, but I think you'll find that freshly grilled bruschetta—with bread that's warm, crisp, and lightly charred outside and still chewy inside—makes all the difference.
Tricks for the best bruschetta
Choose rustic country bread or crusty baguettes. Cut slices 1/2 inch thick, and for baguettes, slice on a diagonal to get longer pieces, which are easier to handle on the grill. I brush the bread with olive oil so it browns more evenly on the grill. A quick way to do this is to coat a baking sheet with olive oil and set the slices in it in a single layer. Brush the tops with a little more oil (or flip the slices) and set aside until you're ready to grill.
Build a medium-hot fire. Whether you’re using charcoal or gas, the fire should be medium hot. Too hot and the bread will burn; too cool and the bread dries out before it gets nice grill marks. The second side never marks quite as well as the first, so be patient with the first side.
Cut into manageable serving pieces. In most cases, I put on the topping and then cut the bruschetta into manageable serving-size pieces. This is an efficient, time-saving technique, but some loose toppings may fall off. Just top with as much you can, and then cut and add more topping as needed. If you plan to hold the bruschetta for a while, be sure to cut the bread while it’s warm or it tends to crack.
The possibilities for topping bruschetta are virtually endless, but two things are key: Use high-quality ingredients and keep it simple. The number of servings you'll get out of each topping recipe will depend on how large your bread slices are and how you plan to serve the bruschetta. The yield in each recipe should help you plan.