Pa amb tomaquet

Those big, ripe, juicy tomatoes are perfect for a Spanish specialty
Grilled, garlicky bread smeared with the taste of summer is pure comfort food, Catalan-style

Published August 22, 2006
The Oregonian/Food Day

Tomato season may be short in the Northwest, but it is bountiful, flavorful and demands to be savored. Scorpacciata is the Italian word for it: eating your fill of a food at its most perfect.

There's no doubt that tomatoes are at their peak of perfection right now, and pa amb tomaquet is the way to use them. It is one of the best things you'll eat this summer, hands down.

You've had bruschetta, of course, a simple, classic Italian snack that's come to mean many things to many cooks. Pa amb tomaquet (which translates as bread with tomato) is its Catalan cousin, enjoyed up and down the Costa Brava of Spain, from Barcelona to the French border.

Informally known by Castilians as pan tomaca, this grilled, garlicky bread is smeared with the cut side of a plump, juicy tomato, drizzled with the region's Arbequina olive oil and sprinkled with salt.

Like bruschetta, which also refers to the grilled bread base rather than its topping, pan tomaca is often gussied up: Anchovy fillets or paper-thin slices of salty Serrano ham are Catalan favorites. But do yourself a favor and try it plain. You'll never look back.

For Catalans, pa amb tomaquet is the ultimate comfort food, but I can yield to the urge to eat it daily only when the tomato vines are absolutely groaning under the weight of sweet, ripe fruit. I suppose the efficient professional-chef side of me feels guilty about using big, gorgeous, juicy tomatoes for their innards alone.

(After rubbing, you're left with a dry-ish tomato skeleton peppered with bread crumbs.) Having said that, what you're left with is also perfect for panzanella (bread salad), when combined with several more tomatoes that still have their juice and seeds intact. But it's worth every last BLT sacrificed. Live a little.

Bruschetta is so last summer.

Here's how to do it:

Use thick slices of a coarse-textured, chewy bread like ciabatta to make authentic pan tomaca at home. Toast the bread on a grill, turning once, until golden brown. (A toaster works, too, but the flavor will be different.) Rub both sides of your toast with a clove of garlic at this point.

Allowing at least half of a very ripe, juicy tomato for every two slices of toast, halve the tomatoes crosswise and smear a piece of toast with the cut side. Squeeze gently while you are rubbing so that the open crumb of the bread fills with juice, seeds and bits of tomato flesh. Lightly drizzle your toast with the best olive oil you can find and sprinkle it with salt. Scorpacciata!

Ellen Jackson is a Portland food writer and pastry chef.

©2006 The Oregonian