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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Perhaps the best thing to do with bread

Quickiedinner

I'm talking about pan con tomate, the ubiquitous Catalan bread and tomato. It's so simple, but to me, it's perhaps the best thing that's ever been done to a bread.

Take a piece of crusty bread, preferably a little stale, toast it a bit, rub a clove of garlic all over one side, cut a super ripe tomato in half, rub the cut side of one of the halves on the bread until the juice runs all over your hand and the bread, making a grand mess -making a mess is an integral part of this, trust me-, douse the piece of bread liberally with good olive oil, Spanish of course, and sprinkle a bit of sea salt all over. Done! That's it. Glorious in its simplicity, isn't it? It's a wonder that the same culture, the same people, gave rise to the overwrought cuisine of elBulli.

I remember a funny story about this bread in grad school. We had two visiting researchers from Barcelona at my lab for a month or two. I invited them once to dinner, so they responded in kind and invited me to a classic Spanish lunch where they would make the famous tortilla and pan con tomate. They were so excited about this, talking about it at length for days before the lunch. The day arrived, they went to the local Albertsons in La Jolla for the ingredients. I arrived with a bottle of Rioja, I could smell the tortilla cooking, on the table top were some freshly toasted breads, a couple of tomatoes, a bottle of olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and a bowl of salt, everything one needed for a great pan con tomate.

You see where this is going, don't you? Miquel grabbed the tomato, cut it in half, giving a running commentary about his proud culinary heritage, and began to rub the cut tomato half on the bread in earnest. Nothing came out. Nothing. After a few seconds he stopped, turning the tomato half up and staring at it in disbelief. Tried again, still nothing came out. He was clearly frustrated now, dry as <censored>, he swore. Yeah, I forgot to tell you about the Catalonian's gift at imaginative -not to mention lurid- swearing.

What Miquel didn't understand: the beauty of those bright red tomatoes from Albertsons was only skin-deep. In taste they were mealy, dry, and just a step better than biting into a hunk of styrofoam. We ended up eating toast and olive oil with the tortilla. Oh well.

So, the moral of the story is, don't attempt this pan con tomate with supermarket tomatoes. Wait until you have fresh, vine-ripen tomatoes at your local farmers market or your very own garden if you were that lucky. It would be pointless otherwise.

For us, last night, to accompany the delicious pan con tomate was a skirt steak, seared very quickly on the mini grill out in the backyard. We opened a 1985 Mt.Eden Cab first, but it turned out to be quite over the hill. Quite. Oh well, undeterred, we found 1995 Pontet-Canet, a Bordeaux. It was nice, with a nose of cassis and tobacco. Well, ok, quite strongly of tobacco, in fact it smelled like a pack of unlit Marlboro. hmm.

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