It’s officially the hottest time of the year. The good news is, the markets are bursting with produce, which means you scarcely have to turn on the stove. Yes, raw tomatoes are a meal (at least in my book), especially when they’re mixed with basil and garlic, heaped onto country bread, and drizzled with lashings of olive oil. Today’s no-cook Tuesday dinner — summer bruschetta — comes from John Baxter, author of The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France.
John grew up in Australia and moved to Paris over twenty years ago. An acclaimed film critic and biographer — and enthusiastic bon vivant — his most recent book, The Perfect Meal, follows his quest to taste the great French culinary classics before they disappear forever. It’s a charming pastiche of essays, filled with humor and warmth. Today I’m delighted to share John’s quick cooking secrets — and his recipe for tomato bruschetta.
On eating in hot weather:
My wife and I both love cheese, so we’ll make do with a green salad, some cheeses and a little fruit. My wife prefers a runny St Marcellin or St Felicien; I like a cream-rich Brillat-Savarin. We are both fans of British cheese also, particularly Stilton, or — a real treat — Fortnum and Mason’s potted Shropshire with malt whisky.
How he relaxes:
Almost invariably, the evening begins with our preferred decompressant – a Tanqueray Rangpur gin and Fevertree tonic with a slice of orange and plenty of ice.
On reinventing leftovers:
My leftovers often find their way into stir-fries or curries. Fry up some onions, garlic and ginger, throw in cumin and other dry spices, then add whatever’s left from the previous meal. Fresh herbs are a nice addition, but if I don’t have them, I mix in shredded lettuce and sliced green onions to add a crunch.
On raising a miniature gourmand:
When our daughter Louise was eight, a school friend invited her to lunch. “I’m afraid we might have disappointed Louise a little,” the mother said as she returned her. “When I asked what she’d like to eat, she said ‘a crab soufflé.’”
So I wasn’t entirely certain, when I asked Louise to suggest some dish from my repetoire that took only thirty minutes to prepare, that she wouldn’t propose a starter involving sweetbreads, courgette flowers and essence of mangosteen. Her response, however, was instant and exactly right: “How about bruschetta?”
Summer tomato bruschetta
By John Baxter
I make this most often in August at our summer place near La Rochelle, on the estuary of the Charente, where the vendors grown their own tomatoes and basil. It provides the perfect starter for a meal of grilled whole St Pierre or a bowl of freshly boiled langoustines with mayonnaise. However it’s just as feasible in a Paris apartment, providing there are ripe and tasty tomatoes to be found. Bruschetta doesn’t work with baguette, nor with American-style sandwich bread or a sourdough loaf. The best is a white batarde or pain campagne, ideally a day or two old.
*Note from Ann: I enjoyed John’s bruschetta twice: once for dinner, accompanied by grilled chicken and corn on the cob, the second time for lunch with a scoop of ricotta drizzled with olive oil.
Two thick slices of bread per person
About one large ripe tomato per person
One or two fat cloves of garlic
Five or six leaves of fresh basil per person
Plentiful olive oil
Salt, fresh pepper and sugar
Light the grill (the broiler). Toast the bread on one side only. Spread oil liberally on a metal baking sheet. Place bread slices toasted side down on the baking sheet. Brush or drizzle untoasted sides well with oil, and reserve.
Chop the tomatoes into medium dice. (Skin and seed them if you wish, though I feel this offends against the peasant spirit of the dish.) Chop the basil fine, crush the garlic, and mix the tomatoes, basil and garlic with generous quantities of olive oil. Add salt, pepper and a little sugar to taste. Heap the mixture on the slices of bread and place under the grill (the broiler). Grill (broil) until the tomatoes begin to soften –- about one minute. Serve immediately.
In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I experimented with different combinations of ingredients; a red beefsteak tomato and a large yellow variety which the vendor called “Pineapple,” and two kinds of basil: the small-leaf variety sold as a growing plant in most markets, and the large-leafed, more pungent Vietnamese kind. Everyone preferred the yellow tomato with the classic basil. But nobody left any of either kind.
(Photo of John Baxter courtesy of John Baxter.)