Why It Works
- Slice hearty bread thick to make a stronger base to support extra tomato pulp.
- A box grater is the easiest way to extract tomato pulp while separating it from the skin.
Pan con tomate is just about as humble as tapas can get. It has only five ingredients—bread, tomato, olive oil, garlic, and salt—and requires almost no actual cooking, yet it's precisely this simplicity and restraint that make it such a perfect end-of-summer dish. This is the kind of thing I make as an appetizer at a party or combine with a hearty salad for a light dinner. It takes just minutes, and highlights the quality of your ingredients.
In its original form, pan con tomate is Catalan, not Spanish, and is called pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato). Catalonia, in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, is also responsible for giving the world cava and paella.
As with a good Caprese salad, the only way to mess up pan con tomate is to start with subpar ingredients (you want the best tomatoes, olive oil, and bread) or to overthink it. This is one of the few cases in which the lazier you are, the better.
Getting the most flavor out of good tomatoes
Unlike its Italian counterpart, tomato bruschetta—another dish made with the same basic ingredients—Spanish pan con tomate uses tomato pulp, not diced or sliced tomatoes. How you get that pulp varies.
Some folks keep it super simple by splitting a tomato in half and rubbing it over the rough surface of a slice of toast, tinting it red and giving it a very light, refreshing tomato flavor. Tomato as condiment. This is a fine method if you've got lots of bread and not many tomatoes, but that's not typically my situation (good tomatoes tend to come in large numbers).
I use the box grater method, a technique I learned while working at Toro, one of Ken Oringer's Spanish restaurants in Boston (and formerly New York): Cut a tomato in half and rub the cut surface over a box grater, keeping the palm of your hand completely flat. This conveniently extracts and chops the tomato pulp and separates it from the skin (which can be discarded). This is also a great method if you want to make a super-quick fresh tomato sauce for pizza or pasta.
Choosing the right bread
Typically the bread is sliced thin from a long, rustic loaf. This works fine if you're serving pan con tomate as you do in Spain: as a free bar snack. But for a more substantial part of a meal, I like to use more substantial bread, something I can really pile the tomatoes onto.
A loaf of open-holed ciabatta, split in half lengthwise and then split crosswise into individual pieces, provides enough substance and structure for big spoonfuls of tomato pulp. I drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over the bread and place it under the broiler until it's browned, crisp, and just starting to char around the edges. You need that level of crispness to stand up to the juicy tomato.
Olive oil, garlic, and other enhancements
The final question is how to incorporate the olive oil and garlic. Some recipes, like this one from Tertulia's Seamus Mullen, call for adding garlic directly to the tomato pulp, along with sherry vinegar.
I prefer to keep my flavors a little more distinct, letting the tomatoes handle themselves. I apply garlic directly to the bread by rubbing half a clove on the rough surface. It kind of acts like sandpaper—you'll see your garlic clove getting smaller and smaller as it leaves a thin layer of flavor behind.
The tomatoes are seasoned with salt and spooned on top of the bread. Finally, I drizzle it with more olive oil (a lot more olive oil), sprinkle it with coarse salt, and serve. No embellishments required. You don't even need chopped herbs, although I suppose a sprinkle of parsley or chives would not detract from the overall experience. I've seen a few variations here and there with other toppings, but the only one that has ever really come close to matching the synergy of flavors of the original is adding a single brined anchovy, with a tiny dollop of allioli, the Catalan version of a garlicky mayonnaise.
It's only as I write this that I realize why I like that flavor combination so much: Between the toasted bread, the fresh tomato, the mayo, and the salty/savory anchovy, it's got almost all the same notes as the BLT, the best simple sandwich ever conceived.
2 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes
1 loaf ciabatta, split in half horizontally lengthwise, cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch slices
Extra-virgin olive oil,divided
2 medium cloves garlic, split in half
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel
Split tomatoes in half horizontally. Place a box grater into a large bowl. Rub cut faces of tomatoes over the large holes of a box grater, using the flattened palm of your hand to move the tomatoes back and forth. The flesh should be grated off, while the skin remains intact in your hand. Discard skin and season tomato pulp with kosher salt to taste.
Adjust oven rack to 4 inches below broiler and preheat broiler to high. Place bread, cut side up, on a cutting board and brush with some of the olive oil. Season with kosher salt. Place bread, oiled side up, on a rack set in a tray or directly on the broiler rack and broil until crisp and starting to char around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove bread from oven and rub with the split garlic cloves. Spoon tomato mixture over bread. Drizzle with remaining extra-virgin olive oil and season with flaky sea salt. Serve immediately.