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Fresh tomatoes and herbs make summer the perfect time to try bruschetta, an Italian appetizer that also can be a snack or a meal. Photo by Sue Doeden

No matter how you say it, bruschetta is a summer treat

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Chopped ripe tomatoes, freshly snipped herbs, garlic and onions toppling over a slice of slightly toasted baguette is a summer treat I love. It's called bruschetta (bruce-ketta).

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I first learned of bruschetta when I watched television chef Mario Batali prepare the traditional Italian appetizer years ago on public television. Originating in the central band of Italy, basic bruschetta was always the same - 1/2 inch thick slice of homemade bread, usually an unsalted chewy type of bread with a good crust, at least two days old. It was toasted on a grill over a wood fire, rubbed with garlic while still hot and then seasoned with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Then it was ready to hold toppings.

Bruschetta is quick and easy to prepare, but do remember to use good-quality extra-virgin olive oil and bread that is firm and chewy, such as baguette or ciabatta. If a small piece of the bread sticks together and becomes a ball when you squeeze it, you will not want to use it for bruschetta.

The sky is the limit when it comes to making toppings for these little plates of bread known as bruschetta. I've seen everything from asparagus and goat cheese to grilled round steak and white beans. For some, bruschetta becomes an open-faced sandwich featuring bits of this and that from the refrigerator. If you are entertaining, you can set up a make-your-own bruschetta bar, with a nice variety of topping choices.

I prefer the more traditional Italian topping of chopped tomatoes with fresh herbs, a bit of balsamic vinegar, and a small amount of chopped onion. I brush slices of baguette with my favorite olive oil and minced garlic on one side before toasting it briefly on the grill. If you take one bite of bruschetta and it rips up the roof of your mouth, you've toasted it a little too much and it has become way too crispy. Ideally, you will see grill marks on the bread, it will have just a slight crunch when you bite into it and the inside will be chewy and tender.

Chopping the tomatoes and onions into small pieces makes the bruschetta much easier to eat and less messy as it makes the trip from plate to hand to mouth. Fresh oregano, basil and oregano get snipped from my outdoor garden. Fresh herbs can also be found in all grocery stores these days and at some farmers markets. Used in small amounts, the intensity of the fresh herbs accent the tomatoes rather than overpower.

Bruschetta with Tomato and Herbs Topping uses fresh mozzarella, softened on each bruschetta before being removed from the grill. The melted cheese holds the tomato mixture to the toasted bread. I like to arrange the hot, mozzarella-topped bruschetta on a serving platter with the topping in a bowl so that each of my guests can serve themselves. Rather than melting the cheese on each slice, another option would be to cut the mozzarella into small chunks and stir it into the tomato mixture. Everything gets scooped onto the toasted bread at once. It needs to be eaten soon, though. The juice of the tomatoes will soak into the bread quickly without the shield of soft mozzarella to protect the crunchiness.

At this time of year when the backyard grills are fired up, fresh herbs are plentiful and ripe juicy tomatoes are at their prime, bruschetta shines as an appetizer, a snack or a meal with a helping of cottage cheese. This recipe is simply a guide. Alter the seasonings and ingredients to suit your own taste. And then, get creative with toppings. Chicken livers and parmesan, anyone?

Bruschetta with Tomato and Herbs Topping

6 plum tomatoes

3 chubby cloves garlic, minced, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

8 to 10 fresh basil leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced ¼ inch thick

1 French baguette

Remove seeds from plum tomatoes. Chop the tomatoes so that the pieces are quite small. You should have about 2 cups of chopped tomatoes. Place the chopped tomatoes in a strainer over a bowl to allow any extra juice to drain.

In a bowl, combine 2 minced cloves of garlic, oregano, basil, parsley, red onion, and balsamic vinegar. Use a gentle touch to toss the chopped tomatoes into the mix. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons olive oil with remaining minced garlic. Slice the baguette diagonally into 1/2-inch thick slices. Use a pastry brush to coat one side of each slice with garlic olive oil. Toast both sides of prepared bread slices on the grill over hot coals, with the olive oil side down first.

Just before baguette toasts are ready to remove from the grill, lay a slice of mozzarella over the top of each. This will be the side with the garlic olive oil. Allow 45 to 60 seconds for the cheese to soften.

Arrange the toasted baguette slices on a serving platter, cheese side up. Either place the tomato topping in a bowl with a spoon for people to scoop topping over the toast, or place some topping on each slice of bruschetta and serve immediately. Makes 12 to 15 Bruschetta with Tomato and Herb Topping.

Tips from the cook

--If you have an open jar of tiny capers in your refrigerator, toss a few into the tomato topping. I had a small piece of roasted red pepper that I added. It amounted to just a couple of tablespoons when chopped.

--Use any remaining Tomato and Herbs Topping on grilled hamburgers with mozzarella.

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