This ubiquitous Spanish starter is the simplest thing in the world to make, but don’t be fooled by the basic nature of the dish. Probably the most famous dish from Catalonia, the beloved pan con tomate is a thing of genius, the sheer simplicity belying a profound complexity of flavor from five ingredients in symbiotic harmony. You start with good, flavorful, rustic bread. You toast it until it’s hot and crusty. Add garlic, tomato, olive oil, and salt. The end result is perfection.
To make pan con tomate at home you need very good bread with some flavor, a hearty crust, and a crumb dense enough to withstand a little manhandling. I like to make it with a sourdough batard, which is a French loaf that’s fatter and more irregular than its cousin the baguette. I cut it on the bias (at an angle) into slices about three-quarters of an inch thick.
You can use any kind of grill you like to toast the bread. This time I used a grill pan for the convenience; I didn’t feel like firing up the propane Weber for a few slices of bread, ya know. I’m sure you could broil the bread if you wanted or hold the bread in a pair of tongs and wave it over a roaring oak fire, which would probably be the most authentic method. However you do it, get the bread nice and hot and a little charred on both sides.
Okay, the garlic. Take a peeled clove of fresh garlic and trim off about the end, removing about 25% of the clove off. You’ll scrape the cut end over the hot bread’s surface. For tomatoes I like the medium-sized vine-ripe kind. Cut them into quarters. You need one tomato quarter per slice of bread. You’ll also need extra-virgin olive oil, ideally from Spain; something fruity with some good character. Finally good sea salt. I had on hand some fleur de sel de Camargue but use anything except iodized table salt.
So, to assemble your tasty pan con tomate first grill the bread until crusty. Gently scrape the garlic clove all over one side of the bread. Now rub the tomato into the bread on that same side. A little pulp will rub off, maybe a couple of seeds, definitely some good tomato essence. Now drizzle a generous amount of olive oil over the slice, maybe a teaspoon per slice, and sprinkle some salt over the slice. You can crack some black pepper over it if you’d like, although it’s optional.
Serve with a little manchego cheese or salami or jamon Serrano. Oh, and don’t forget a glass of cheap but tasty red wine!