Bruschetta – love at first bite

Crispy, garlicky bread with chopped tomatoes and basil – so delicious, and so hard to come by in foggy coastal Oregon.

Have you ever tasted something so exquisite you couldn't forget it? That's what happened to me last summer. The more I tried to put the dish out of my mind, the more it haunted me.

On our cool, foggy Oregon coast – unlike the rest of the country during late summer – we have a dearth of fresh, ripe, juicy tomatoes.

I didn't know this when I moved to the coast, and so I brought my tomato plants in big pots. The green fruits remained green, never blushing even pink under the cool, foggy skies. And the usual store tomatoes? Forget it. They are travelers from afar, underripe and tasteless, with a spongy texture.

I'd resigned myself to our lack of tomatoes until this summer. Then, one June evening, we were visiting my son's family in another town. Time passed, and we hadn't planned dinner. Their friend Gabe, who was there, volunteered to find something to cook at the local co-op. When he came home, he brought fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and crusty bread. Soon we were devouring crispy, garlicky slices of bread topped with juicy tomatoes and chopped basil leaves. The meal was so simple and yet so extraordinary.

"Yeah," Gabe said, beaming at our expressions. "They're pretty good. I remember when my dad made bruschetta for me, and that's all I wanted to eat for a very long time!"

Moments after I tasted my first bruschetta (OK, make that, uh, five pieces of bruschetta), practically swooning with delight, I was in the kitchen watching Gabe and pumping him with questions about technique: "So, you rub the garlic into the bread?"

When I arrived home, I raved about Gabe's bruschetta constantly, bemoaning the fact that I could never make it since we have no delicious ripe tomatoes. Strike No. 2: Thanks to our climate, we also can't grow (and stores don't reliably offer) fresh basil.

However, not being able to make bruschetta didn't stop me from yearning for the dish – or from constantly reminiscing out loud to my long-suffering husband, who appeared a bit underwhelmed by my enthusiasm. Craig didn't quite get why I couldn't just let it go.

A month or so after tasting the bruschetta, we meandered through a nursery and happened upon a gallon pot with a thriving sweet basil plant. My eyes opened wide as I contemplated the possibilities. Of course, I still did not have tomatoes, but maybe if I acquired one ingredient, the others would fall into place. It would be my own bruschetta treasure hunt.

"I'm buying this," I told my husband.

"It won't grow," he reminded me. "Think of all the basil you've planted."

"I'll keep it in its pot and move it around to keep it warm," I declared. "Hey, who knows? Maybe we'll find some great tomatoes and I can make ..."

"Gabe's bruschetta," Craig and I said, in a duet.

"I doubt it," he added.

But I'd remembered something. Most years in September, a tiny, sunny inland town named Agness supplies one of our local grocery stores with tomatoes that are ruby red and juicily sweet.

"Agness tomatoes!" I exclaimed.

"That's not for another month or so."

"I will keep this basil plant alive," I vowed, "until I can get my hands on some Agness tomatoes. I'll make you bruschetta like you've never tasted!"

I spent the next few weeks coddling that basil plant, placing it in a nook by the kitchen door that's fairly sheltered and receives sunshine when there's any to receive. The plant didn't exactly thrive there, but it stayed alive. When the nights grew cool, I moved it to a warmish spot in the bay window above the sink.

And I waited. I took to popping into the local market frequently to check on the state of Agness tomatoes. The salespeople soon told me what I wanted to know without my even having to open my mouth: "Still no Agness tomatoes," they'd say. "Maybe tomorrow."

Then, one day, I spotted the crimson treasure I sought, piled in two humble cardboard boxes outside the store's door, with the sign: Agness Tomatoes. I snatched a bagful and dashed through the store, grabbing fresh garlic and a long, slim sourdough baguette.

"We're having Gabe's bruschetta for lunch," I told Craig.

"OK," he said, shrugging. "Or we could eat sardines, or whatever."

Not likely.

Could I remember how to make the dish I'd been pining for? I could. Or, at least, an approximation. I sliced bread and tomatoes. I plucked leaves from my basil plant. I peeled garlic.

Craig came in as I rubbed the cut garlic clove across the crisp, golden bread. We heaped on sliced tomatoes and basil. Then we feasted. As so rarely happens in my culinary experiences, it was as luscious as I remembered it.

"Do you like it?" I asked.

Craig grinned. "We're having this for dinner, too, right?"

Yes, indeed. In fact, we managed to devour five meals of tomato-basil bruschetta in three days.

Hmm. I've got an Agness tomato on the kitchen counter. My basil plant still offers a few fragrant leaves. Why write about bruschetta when I can eat it?

I'm off.

Tomato-Basil Bruschetta

6 to 8 fresh basil leaves

6 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained, chopped

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper (and salt to taste, if desired)

1 medium baguette of French or Italian bread

3 large garlic cloves, peeled and halved

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (optional)

Remove stems from basil leaves and tear or chop leaves into small pieces.

In a medium bowl, combine the two kinds of tomatoes with the basil, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Cut bread in 3/4-inch slices. Toast bread until just golden in a 450 degree F. oven for about 10 minutes or for a few minutes under the broiler. While slices are still hot, rub the tops with the garlic.

Spoon tomato mixture – draining off excess liquid – over the bread slices and serve. Or, if using the cheese, sprinkle it on top of the tomato mixture and broil for up to 5 minutes, until cheese is melted.

Makes 12 pieces.

Variations: Instead of rubbing the bread with garlic cloves, mix 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic with the tomato mixture. Or use garlic powder. Freshly grated Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is also good on this.

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