I stopped by a restaurant recently on a sunny afternoon for my take-out order and the staff was just finishing their break on the sidewalk. One of the cooks told me that they’d been discussing what to do with the first tomatoes of the season. He would be making tomato sandwiches, he said, because he waited all summer for the local fruits to ripen so he could slice them and stack the slices on bread with mayonnaise (always Hellmann’s, he told me, though he also makes his own, but not for this).
Bread and tomatoes, we decided, are one of the great pleasures of summer. And though tomato sandwiches are also one of my favorite treats, so is Pan Con Tomate (literally, bread with tomato), the Spanish dish that also goes by the Catalan names Pan Tumaca or Pa Amb Tomàquet. Instead of slicing the tomato, you pile tomato pulp onto crusty bread. In Spain, bread with tomato is so common — practically a national dish — that you can order it at a nice tapas bar, and at the food counter when you stop on the roadside for gas.
Pan Con Tomate gives equal time to the bread, tomatoes, olive oil, and salt that go into it. In Spain, the bread might be a kind of ciabatta sliced lengthwise and crosswise, served fresh; you can request it toasted till golden and crunchy. Pulverized or grated tomatoes come in a little bowl and you get a cruet of oil and salt on the side.
Here’s the simplest technique imaginable, the one I prefer because it’s practically instant: Cut a tomato in half and use the cut side to press the pulp on the bread slices until there’s nothing left to the fruit but the skin. Add a generous sprinkle of olive oil to the bread and salt. It’s sweet, salty, fruity, crusty, and delicious, the most heavenly summer eating.
In Spain, a lot of the bread is quite crusty outside but very light inside, so the feathery crumb will absorb tomato juices and olive oil. But the dish undoubtedly began as a way to revive stale loaves (among the hundreds of ways invented by clever cooks wherever bread is an important part of the table). In Catalonia, where Pa Amb Tomàquet is a regional specialty, the tomatoes used are thick and meaty; in markets they’re hanging in clusters on a string.
Some cooks here advise using plum tomatoes for Pan Con Tomate, and these, too, should be locally grown because run-of-the-mill plum tomatoes have little flavor.
Bread and tomatoes are just as popular in neighboring Italy, where bruschetta — sliced, toasted bread — is mounded with chopped tomatoes and olive oil. In the south of France, the ripe fruits are baked whole and stuffed with meat and breadcrumbs to make Tomates Farcies a la Provencale or sliced and baked with breadcrumbs and herbs.
For Pan Con Tomate, use the best of each ingredient, since there are only five. You want an artisan bread, which you can cut any way you like. Open that bottle of olive oil a dinner guest brought you when we used to do things like entertain. Tomatoes must be native and ripe (leave them on your windowsill for a day or two). Garlic, which is optional, should also be local and very fresh, and salt, which is not optional, must be coarse sea salt loaded with flavor.
If you’ve got 10 minutes, you can make a mountain of Pan Con Tomate. And it adapts easily to social distancing if you give each guest a DIY plate with toasted bread, tomatoes, and the other few ingredients in little saucers. When life throws you a pleasure, grab it.