Whether you know it as pan con tomate, as many Spaniards do, or by its native Catalan name, pa amb tomàquet (“pam two-MAH-cat”), the dish is bread with tomato, and it’s as simple as cooking gets.
“If you have a piece of bread, you have a piece of bread with tomato,” said Alex Montiel, a native of Catalonia and chef/owner of La Cuchara de San Telmo in San Sebastián who grew up eating pa amb tomàquet daily. The crunchy yet tender toasted bread and brilliantly ripe tomato pulp make for an unbeatable combination, he explained, especially when the tomato-topped toast is seasoned with coarse salt and lavished with great olive oil.
Once you’ve had it, the appeal is obvious. In addition to the contrasting flavors and textures of the elements, you’re charmed by the dish’s deceptively complex character. On the one hand, it’s routine, humble food—something that “everybody eats in Catalonia,” according to Montiel. On the other hand, the purity of the ingredients conveys a certain sense of luxury. Owen Royce‑Nagel, chef at Tres Gatos, my go-to tapas bar in the Jamaica Plain corner of Boston, said pa amb tomàquet reminds him of “picking snap peas right out of the garden while they still have the sweetness of coming off the vine.”
It may seem like a dish this simple doesn’t need a recipe. But given pa amb tomàquet’s weight in Catalan cuisine, and that best practices can guarantee truly sublime results when you’re using high-quality ingredients such as these, I wanted to work out every detail. After all, said Montiel, “it’s one of the most important meals in the world.”
Pa amb tomàquet uses only a tomato’s vibrant, umami‑rich pulp; in fact, tomàquets de ramallet (tomatoes on the vine) and tomàquets de penjar (hanging tomatoes) are thick‑skinned, juice-heavy varieties bred in Catalonia specifically for this purpose. But ripe, in-season American varieties—the bigger, the better to maximize the yield—were also terrific.
To harvest the pulp, cooks halve tomatoes through the equator to expose as much of the interior as possible and then either rub the cut side directly onto the toast or grate it on a box grater and spoon it over the top. Montiel said that putting the tomato directly to the bread is an older, more traditional approach, but some cooks prefer grating because the pulp is easy to prepare ahead, uniformly season, and portion on the bread. I chose to grate, running the fruit over the coarse holes until the flesh was reduced to a puree and the skin a mere slip. Two large tomatoes netted about 1½ cups of pulp—enough to coat a loaf’s worth of toast.
Pan de cristal (“glass bread”), a rustic loaf with an exceptionally open, airy crumb, is the gold standard for pa amb tomàquet. It’s often compared to ciabatta, so that’s what I used in its place, halving the oblong loaf laterally and slicing each half 2 inches thick.
The bread is always toasted dry (olive oil is drizzled on at the table) and quickly so that the exterior browns and crisps while the inside stays tender. Royce-Nagel said that structural contrast allows the bread to both absorb and withstand the tomato’s liquid: “You still get that crunch from the bottom of the bite, and then all of that flavor kind of seeps into the top.”
Some cooks grill it, but broiling works, too. I placed the bread slices cut side up on a wire rack set in a baking sheet and toasted them 6 inches below the broiler element until they crisped and browned. Then I rubbed the hot toasts with garlic—an optional step that infuses the crumb with a mellow savoriness. Its flavor complemented the tomatoes so nicely that it felt essential.