In the waning weeks of summer vacation, with the days already getting shorter and the first day of school on the horizon, few of us want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Now is the time to make the most of the incredible bounty of the August garden.
I’m talking tomatoes, here, of course. As far as I’m concerned, nothing compares to the deep, sun-warmed flavor and chin dripping juiciness of a freshly picked tomato. Whether it’s a salty, smoky Cherokee Purple or a nicely acidic Early Girl, a good tomato needs very little help to make a good meal.
A couple of slabs of ripe tomato and a sprinkle of salt is the perfect mid-summer lunch. Add toasted bread and a salty bit of cured pork and you have a simple feast of the season that crosses continents and cultures. In America, it’s a BLT. In Spain, it’s pan con tomate, or bread with tomato. One of the most popular offerings in the tapas bars of Barcelona, bread with tomato at its most basic is little more than a generous slice of toasted bread rubbed with the cut side of a tomato half until the bread has soaked up as much juice and pulp as it can hold. It’s a classic marriage of flavor and texture that only takes minutes to prepare.
From that point, you can embellish as you wish. A clove of garlic rubbed over the toast just before the tomato adds a typically Mediterranean note. So do a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.
If you’re particularly flush, a slice or two of Serrano ham is a luxurious addition. Or, like me, you could make do with some well-crafted domestic prosciutto, which lends savor and a measure of protein. The ham should be dry-cured and sliced paper thin. A garnish of good quality anchovy fillet is the crowning touch in my book, but you can leave it off if you share the widespread American prejudice against strongly flavored little fish.
A dish like this doesn’t really require a recipe, although I discovered a good guide in the new cookbook, “The Book of Tapas,” by Simone and Ines Ortega (Phaidon, 2010). It’s a veritable encyclopedia of the little dishes served in Spain.
The critical point is to use the best ingredients you can find.
A substantial, rustic bread like the Pan Pascal organic demi-miche I found at Trader Joe’s is essential since it needs to absorb the tomato without falling apart. A good local sourdough with a dense crumb and not too many holes does the job, too. Get an unsliced loaf so you can cut thick slices. Toast the slices until well-browned under the broiler, on the grill or even in the toaster if it has wide slots.
The tomato must be very ripe and super juicy. Dry-farmed Early Girls are ideal but any flavorful beefsteak would be great, too. Cut the tomato in half across its hemisphere and rub in as much of the juice and pulp as you can.
Then drizzle with a good olive oil and sprinkle with a small pinch of sea salt.
Top with a couple of slices of the dry cured ham, garnish with anchovy if desired, and dig in immediately. Summer never tasted so good.