There are few things that I like better than curling up on the sofa with a good book, and when it comes to time out to do just that my preferred reading material would usually be a good cookbook rather than a gripping novel. As you might imagine then, I have quite a good collection of cookbooks; although, I still have an equally extensive "wishlist" of culinary tomes that I would like to add to the shelves.
Now you've heard me mention before my love for Italian food, and as you might expect I draw constantly on a number of Italian cookbooks for my inspiration. In that vein, one cook and author who inspires me, and whose books have been on my wishlist for quite some time, is Marcella Hazan. Imagine my excitement then, when on a recent visit to Spinach Tiger (one of the food blogs I visit regularly), I stumbled across the Cooking Italy group - a group of like-minded food lovers and bloggers who are learning to cook regional Italian food together by cooking their way through Marcella's book The Essentials of Classic Italian Cookery.
Each month Angela (aka Spinach Tiger, and the group founder and co-ordinator) posts a selection of dishes from the book, which the group will then cook, discuss and post their results. Of course, because most of the group are in the northern hemisphere, I will at times be seasonally out of step with everyone else. (Right now, for example, while I'm up to my armpits in peaches and tomatoes, most of the group are up to their knees in snow!!) Which means that sometimes I'll simply choose something from the list that they made 6 months ago - get the picture.
And so I come to my first dish, and coincidentally the very first dish the group prepared as well - Tomato Bruschetta (pronounced brusketta by the way). Seasonally, of course, this is the perfect time for this dish. But it also strikes me as very fitting that this should be the first dish that I make, as it absolutely epitomises for me what Italian food is all about - that the best food arises from cooking with exceptional, seasonal, locally produced ingredients, simply prepared - food which highlights the quality of the ingredients rather than showcasing the talents of the chef. In that vein, this is a relatively simple dish to put together, but there is no place to hide here - you need to use the very best ingredients that you can get your hands on. Here in the New Zealand summer (such as it is) all of the ingredients required are at their best right now, and I got everything I needed at the Christchurch Farmers Market on Saturday - everything locally grown or produced, with the exception of the garlic which had travelled a few hours down the road from Marlborough.
This would be a good appetiser, but I enjoyed it for a light lunch so much that I have had it nearly every day since (nice change from the hummus and pumpkin seed crackers that I usually have).
So about those ingredients - choose a good, crusty sourdough or artisinal loaf - something that is going to retain good body, texture and chew once it has been grilled - this is not the time for the Tip Top white sliced! Tomatoes should be perfectly ripe, preferably organic, - don't even think about making this with those pale, insipid, tasteless hot house tomatoes in the winter. Roma tomatoes are recommended for this, because they have more flesh and less seeds than other varieties, but the ones I had were just fine. Garlic - fresh only - no garlic paste out of the jar! Basil - obviously fresh, not dried - although I would suggest that if you don't have fresh basil to hand, a bit of pesto "dobbed" on top or some rocket (arugula) would be great alternatives. Lastly - olive oil - the very best extra virgin olive oil that your budget will allow.
Tomato Bruschetta Recipe
adapted from Marcella Hazan's "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking"
via Spinach Tiger
Click here for printable copy of recipe
These are the quantities I used for a lunch for one, and you can just use that as a per person guide if you are serving several people
1 garlic clove
2 thick slices good, crusty bread
1 large fresh, ripe tomato (or 2 if they're small)
3-4 basil leaves , torn into small pieces
extra virgin olive oil
flaky sea salt
black pepper, freshly ground
Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds and cut into small dice.
Grill or toast the bread until crisp and golden. (Although this was not suggested in the recipe, I drizzled the bread with a little olive oil first and was pleased with the result.)
Cut the garlic clove in half, and then rub the cut side over the toasted bread. You will be surprised at how much flavour this imparts without having to mix minced or chopped garlic into the tomatoes.
Top the now garlic-infused toast with the diced tomatoes, torn basil leaves, and drizzle with olive oil.
Season with the salt and pepper, and serve immediately.
Summer on a plate - enjoy!!