Sara Moulton

There are few dishes more elemental and satisfying than bruschetta. A mainstay at many Italian restaurants, its an appetizer comprising slices of grilled bread adorned with any number of toppings.

According to Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, bruschetta likely originated in ancient Rome. Olive growers who brought their produce there to be pressed would sample the flavor of the fresh-squeezed oil on toasted slices of bread. (The word is derived from the Roman verb bruscare, meaning to roast over coals.)

I like to make bruschetta on my stovetop grill at home during the colder months. Its a winning accompaniment to just about any soup or stew and a reliable favorite with the family. Having recently come to the conclusion that there was no good reason why this simple and tasty concoction should be limited to an appetizer or side dish, I have here chosen to cast bruschetta as the star of a summer picnic.

As noted, bruschetta is simple to make. But you need to work with high-quality ingredients if you want it to turn out beautifully. Start with a loaf of fresh and crusty rustic bread. Then brush each slice of bread with your very best extra-virgin olive oil to before it heads for the grill.

When the bread comes off the grill, and while its still hot, rub one side of each slice with a cut clove of garlic. Then top it off with a light sprinkling of sea salt. (By the way, this technique works just as well using a grill pan in the kitchen as it does with a grill outdoors.)

This recipe spells out three different toppings, all vaguely Mediterranean: a white bean salad with fresh fennel thickened with mashed beans so that the filling sticks to the bread; smoked salmon rillettes finely chopped salmon flavored with capers, lemon and fresh herbs and bound with sour cream; and a chopped Greek salad.

Again, I recommend using your best extra-virgin olive oil for the dressings. Each topping yields roughly two cups which should be ample to top four large slices of grilled bread.

But bruschetta is nothing if not basic, meaning that just about any filling youd ordinarily put between two slices of bread will also work as a topping for bruschetta: egg salad, tuna salad, runny cheese, hummus, grilled vegetables, you name it. Just bring the toppings in jars to the picnic, step aside, and watch everyone go for theirs. No ones going to wonder where the sandwiches are when bruschetta is on the picnic menu.

SALMON RILLETTES

8 oz. smoked salmon, finely chopped

cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

2 tbsp. minced shallot

2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh chives, tarragon or dill or a mix

2 tbsp. well drained capers, chopped

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 tsp. Dijon mustard

Black pepper to taste

In a bowl combine all the ingredients and stir gently until just combined. Chill until ready to serve.

Makes four servings.

WHITE BEAN SALAD

? cup minced red onion

1 (15-oz.) can white beans

? cup finely diced fresh fennel or celery

1 tsp. minced garlic

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano

tsp. hot pepper flakes (optional)

Kosher salt

In a bowl of ice and water, soak the onion for 15 minutes, drain and pat dry.

Drain and rinse the white beans and pat them dry. In a medium bowl, mash the beans using a potato masher, leaving about half in large pieces and the rest mashed. Add the onion, fennel, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, hot pepper flakes, and salt to taste and stir well. Chill until ready to serve.

Makes four servings.

CHOPPED GREEK SALAD

1 cup coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes

cup -inch dice seedless cucumber

cup finely cubed or crumbled feta

? cup coarsely chopped pitted Kalamata olives

cup chopped pepperoncini

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. shredded fresh basil

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and stir gently until just combined. Chill until ready to serve.

Makes four servings.

BRUSCHETTA

12 slices -inch thick rustic bread

Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing the bread

1 garlic clove, halved

Kosher salt

Preheat a grill or grill pan over high heat. Brush both sides of the bread slices with the oil. Add the bread to the preheated grill, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until bread is nicely browned on both sides (about 1 minute a side).

Remove the bread from the pan or grill and, while its still hot, rub one side of each slice with a cut clove of garlic, then sprinkle it very lightly with kosher salt.

Makes four servings.