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SERIOUSLY SIMPLE: Bruschetta, perfect for a picnic or a barbecue

By Diane Rossen Worthington, Tribune Content Agency

Entree

9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013

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I never tire of the many variations of bruschetta. This classic Italian appetizer features thick sliced and grilled garlic-scented bread, usually drizzled with fruity olive oil. While we usually think of this dish topped with tomatoes, it is a blank canvas for other savory ingredients.

The name bruschetta is derived from the Italian word "bruscare," which means to roast over coals. English speakers commonly and mistakenly pronounce the word "bru-shetta," while the correct pronunciation is closer to "bru-sketta."

Anyway, I have tried many different toppings, but when tomatoes are in season I can't resist this warm weather version. In this recipe, olive oil is drizzled over the tomato and mozzarella cheese topping.

You can use your clever cook skills for creative topping ideas. Add some roasted peppers to the mixture or change out the mozzarella cheese for creamy burrata, feta or goat cheese. Add a touch of balsamic vinegar and 1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes to this topping. Other variations include adding a combination of sweet roasted peppers, black olives and ricotta cheese. Try your hand with this tomato appetizer and then you can expand your repertoire to the unusual white bean topping from "50 Best Plants on the Planet" (Chronicle Books, 2013).

In this adaptation, author Cathy Thomas makes a case for topping the toasts with a creamy bean mash and sugar snap peas -- fresh, colorful and unusual. Cannellini beans -- the large white kidney beans that are so popular in Italian cuisine -- make creamy spreads to use as appetizers. This earthy mash is augmented with a little extra-virgin olive oil along with vinegar, parsley, basil, red onion and tomato.

Both of these toppings can be prepared several hours in advance and stored airtight in the refrigerator. You can grill the bread 2 hours ahead. They both travel well, making this an ideal recipe for picnics. I also like to serve this at a barbecue to get the party going. Serve a summery chilled rosé to accompany either one of these.

Bruschetta with Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella

Topping:

1 pound ripe plum (Roma) tomatoes, peeled

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons finely chopped basil

1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 black pepper

1/4 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in 1/2-inch dice or tiny perlini mozzarella balls

Bread:

1 large baguette, French, sourdough or Italian bread, cut into 1-inch slices

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Dice the tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces and drain over a bowl for 30 minutes to remove excess liquid.

2. Combine all topping ingredients except the cheese in a small nonreactive bowl. Stir well and taste for seasoning.

3. Prepare grill for medium-hot grilling. Place the bread on the grill and grill each side just until marks of the grill appear. Remove from grill and place on a serving platter. Rub the bread on each side with whole garlic cloves.

4. Add the cheese to the topping, spoon the mixture onto each bread slice, and then drizzle over a little more olive oil. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and serve.

Make ahead: The topping may be prepared up to 6 hours in advance through step 2 and refrigerated. The toasts can be prepared 2 hours ahead.

White Bean Bruschetta with Sugar Snap Peas

Excerpted from "50 Best Plants on the Planet" by Cathy Thomas (Chronicle Books, 2013)

Yields 8 servings.

16 half-inch slices whole-wheat baguette, such as sourdough wheat

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/8 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher or sea)

16 sugar snap peas, plus more for garnish

One 15-ounce can cannellini beans, undrained (Note: Canned beans can be salty, so use caution when adding salt; none may be needed.)

1 Roma tomato, cored, finely diced

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Optional: 2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into quarter-inch strips

1. Adjust an oven rack to about 8 to 10 inches below the broiler element. Preheat the broiler. Arrange the bread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Brush both sides lightly with oil, using 1 to 2 tablespoons of the oil. Broil until the bread is brown on the outside edges but slightly soft in the center. Turn, sprinkle with the salt, and repeat broiling until the bread is lightly toasted.

2. Add about 4 cups water to a large saucepan. Bring it to a boil on high heat. Add the peas and blanch until they are tender-crisp, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain and refresh them with cold water. If they are present, remove strings when the peas are cool enough to handle.

3. Put the beans in a medium bowl; mash them to a coarse consistency with a fork. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, the tomato, parsley, onion, basil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

4. If using, top each toasted bread with 1 or 2 prosciutto strips. Top each toast with a spoonful of the bean mixture. Garnish each with a sugar snap pea.

Make Ahead: The topping may be prepared up to 6 hours in advance through step 2 and refrigerated. The toasts can be prepared 2 hours ahead.

(Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 18 cookbooks, including "Seriously Simple Holidays," and also a James Beard award-winning radio show host. You can contact her at http://www.seriouslysimple.com.)