Somehow, despite the popularity of low-carb, no-carb and paleo diets, toast is having a moment. A long moment at that.

Avocado toast graces the menus of all manner of restaurants. Sliced, toasted rustic bread smeared with smashed ripe avocado and a sprinkle of salt. The combination has taken the country by storm. We eat it up! Happily. Carbs be damned.

Thank goodness. If there’s anything better than well-made bread, brushed with flavor and bronzed with heat, I’d like to know.

You had me at cinnamon toast. This after-school treat, buttered toast topped with sugar and cinnamon, still makes me swoon. (Of course, these days I’m likely to assemble the snack from hearty, whole grain bread, French butter, organic sugar and Mexican cinnamon, food snob that I am.)

Crusty, toasted bread also makes lunch better. They know this to be true at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. There, perfectly toasted country bread holds cheese, bechamel sauce, turkey, ham or fromage blanc for a perfect croque monsieur sandwich. I order the mushroom version every time I visit.

At home, a medley of mushrooms, sauteed with spicy poblano pepper, and glazed with cream, piled high on toasted rye bread gratifies. You can add a top slice of toast and compress the whole thing under a panini press, but more often, I serve the concoction open-faced under a thin blanket of cheese.

This rich, creamy mushroom toast easily transforms into steak and mushroom toast when I have leftover grilled steak or roast beef. Be sure to slice the meat super thin and lay it on the toasted bread before topping with the mushrooms.

Recently, a visit to Hardware restaurant in North Aurora, Ill., made me think about how good grilled bread tastes. Smoke from a hardwood fire complements bread beautifully. The restaurant’s flat bread, grilled over hot embers, proves the perfect vehicle for a topping of hummus, cucumber, feta and micro-arugula from its green houses.

For a weekend lunch, I grill pita breads and top them with hummus and sauteed ground lamb and feta. Look for pitas without pockets — they tend to be thicker with a softer inside that’ll stay moist over direct heat. No grill? Simply toast the breads over the gas burner or on a dry griddle, then finish in a hot oven.

Serve these open-faced sandwiches with a sharp knife, fork and a big glass of red wine. Open the Sunday paper. Lunch never looked better.



Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Be sure to use enough heat to sear the mushrooms; don’t crowd the pan, or they will steam instead. If desired, add 2 or 3 ounces super-thin sliced medium-rare cooked steak or shaved roast beef to each bread slice before adding the mushrooms.

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing on bread

1 large poblano pepper, cored, seeded, diced

1 pound assorted sliced mushroom caps, such as shiitake, oyster, cremini, button

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

1/3 to 1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream or creme fraiche

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon each: tarragon, freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon dried thyme

4 thick (about 1-inch) slices pumpernickel or rye bread

1/2 cup shredded cheese, such as Gouda, Gruyere, white cheddar or Parmesan

1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, chives

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add poblano; cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add 2 tablespoons oil and half of the mushrooms to pan. Cook and stir until mushrooms are seared to a nice golden color, about 4 minutes. Add to plate with poblano. Repeat with 1 tablespoon oil and remaining mushrooms.

2. Return poblano and all mushrooms to skillet. Add garlic and wine. Cook on high heat to evaporate most of the wine, about 1 minute. Stir in cream, salt, tarragon, pepper and thyme. Cook and stir until mushrooms are glazed with cream, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

3. Heat the broiler or a toaster oven to high. Brush both sides of the bread slices with oil. Put onto a baking sheet. Broil, 4 inches from heat source, just until edges of bread start to brown, usually about 1 minute. Do not walk away, or bread may burn. Flip and broil the second side.

4. Reheat mushroom mixture, and add a little more cream, if necessary, so the mixture is slightly saucy. Spoon evenly over each bread slice. Top each with a quarter of the cheese. Broil until cheese is golden, 30 to 60 seconds. Sprinkle generously with herbs, and serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 382 calories, 30 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 37 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 11 g protein, 590 mg sodium, 3 g fiber


Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern seasoning blend found in the spice section of large supermarkets. You can substitute a mixture of thyme, marjoram and oregano. The sumac bush, native to the Middle East, has a berry that is used dried and ground to add a lemony flavor. Look for the spice blend and the sumac at The Spice House online. Ground beef (85/15 fat), ground turkey (not just turkey breast) or ground pork tastes good here too.

1 pound ground lamb

1 small or half of a medium red onion, finely chopped, well rinsed, drained

1 cup chopped cherry tomatoes (or drained canned tomatoes)

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses or balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons za’atar seasoning

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3/4 teaspoon salt

4 thick pitas, about 6 inches round

Olive oil

1/3 cup hummus

1/2 cup crumbled feta or salted farmers cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint, optional

1 cup finely chopped seedless cucumber

1 cup shredded romaine lettuce

Ground sumac, optional

Sesame seeds

Balsamic glaze

1. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add lamb and two-thirds of the onion. Cook, stirring often and breaking meat apart into small clumps, until meat is golden, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, pomegranate molasses, za’atar seasoning, garlic and salt; cook and stir, 1 minute. Remove from heat.

2. Heat a gas grill to medium, or prepare a charcoal grill, and heat until coals are covered in gray ash. Put pitas directly over heat source to toast them lightly on both sides, about 1 minute depending on heat of the grill. (Alternatively, toast pitas directly over a gas burner or in a toaster or toaster oven.)

3. Put pitas onto a baking sheet and brush one side with oil. Spread each with a generous tablespoon of the hummus. Top each with one-quarter of the lamb mixture, spreading to cover the pita but leaving 1/2-inch edge all around. Sprinkle each with 2 tablespoons feta. Set on the grill rack away from the heat source; cover the grill, and cook until everything is hot and cheese is softened, about 5 minutes. (Alternatively, bake on a baking sheet or preheated pizza stone in a 425-degree oven, 8 to 10 minutes.)

4. Put 1 hot pita onto each plate. Sprinkle the pita and the plate with some of the remaining onion, cilantro, mint, cucumber and shredded romaine. Sprinkle everything and the plate with sumac and sesame seeds. Drizzle balsamic glaze over everything. Serve right away.

Nutrition information per serving: 507 calories, 25 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 91 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 30 g protein, 1,001 mg sodium, 3 g fiber


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