PA AMB TOMÀQUET: Grilled Bread with Olive Oil, Tomato and Jamón Serrano
It was only a matter of time before we reached the FIFA World Cup (and Saucer) — Spain! What a fabulous country, and not only for the football. As I’m sure you can imagine, my affection for Spain has far less to do with sporting than small, shareable plates. It’s so easy to convince myself that I’ve been virtuous and restrained with my appetite, as if I *didn’t* eat the equivalent of four meals whilst munching on wee little palm-sized portions….for three hours straight…..isn’t tapas the best?
My favorite tapas plates are rustic and regional. The bare simplicity of a rustic tapas allows good quality ingredients to shine, and acts as an ominous warning to your inner cheapskate. For example, Pa Amb Tomàquet are small toasts that thumb their noses at inferior olive oil, and will actually lock themselves in the bathroom and refuse to come out if you suggest making them with jaundiced looking store bought January tomatoes. When you’re making a dish like this, so basic and straightforward that it seems to qualify more as a procedure than a recipe, you will be amazed at the difference that good quality ingredients can make. Go ahead and splurge. Buy the best aged Spanish serrano ham that you can find and afford. preferably one that is richly marbled and flavorful. Dust off the top-shelf bottle of extra virgin olive oil that you zealously protect for only the most exquisite finishing touches. If you don’t have sun ripened sweet tomatoes, save this recipe for another month or two until you do. This calls for the juiciest, sweetest, tumescent tomatoes that are just shy of being over ripe and softening into a pulp. Believe me, the difference in flavor is worth it.
This version of Pa Amb Tomàquet is actually a bit of a hybrid, but such is the luxury of being a home cook. I can easily shrug and say, “Whatever. This isn’t Catalonian, it’s Tinalonian. Now who needs another glass of that Rioja wine?” We started with Pa Amb Oli, a Balearic iteration of toast which translates to “bread with oil”. A dark bread, usually rye, is toasted, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Simple, yet divine. The Catalan Pa Amb Tomàquet uses a toasted white country loaf, rubbed with tomato, drizzled with olive oil, and sometimes gilded with a shaving of jamón serrano, marinated anchovy or sliced cheese. Traditionalists will argue heatedly over the process order (tomato and then oil? Oil then tomato? Both sides or one? To salt or not to salt? SO MANY QUESTIONS!!) and the mere suggestion of grazing the bread with garlic would be met by scandalized silence. However, we like to live on the edge of cultural abomination, so garlic and ham it is.
PA AMB TOMÀQUET
grilled bread rubbed with olive oil and tomato, topped with serrano ham
Serves 4-6 as a light tapas appetizer
- 1 baguette style loaf crusty bread
- 2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
- 4 medium perfectly ripe tomatoes *
- 1/3 cup best extra virgin olive oil
- 6-8 large slices serrano ham **
* My favorite tomatoes for this are Campari, because they tend to be reliably sweet and juicy. The smaller size also makes them easier to manage and fully disembowel onto the bread.
* I love anchovies, but I find that when serving this to guests the ham is an easier sell. If you cannot find jamón serrano, or your favorite dry cured Spanish ham, you can substitute high quality Italian prosciutto, but try to furtively avoid answering any questions about where it came from. In terms of net weight, you will only need about 75 grams, or slightly less than 3 ounces.
Slice the bread on an angle into 12-16 pieces that are 3/4″ thick. Grill the slices over a moderately high heat for 1-2 minutes per side, or until they are warm, golden, and just slightly charred. The outdoor grill lends just a hint of sexy, smoky flavor to the bread, but if you are an apartment dweller you can always broil the bread in your oven about 4″ away from the heat for 30 seconds per side.
If you have any corners that are, *ahem*, slightly TOO charred, just lightly scrape off the blackened bits with a butter knife.
Slice your tomatoes in half. Peel the garlic cloves and cut each one in half or give it a gentle smash with the flat side of your knife.
Rub one side of the toasted bread all over with the cut side of a garlic clove until it has a slight glisten. Drizzle each slice with olive oil, and please don’t be a skinflint. Remember, if you’re going to shell out for an expensive extra virgin olive oil, you might as well use enough to taste the difference.
Rub the bread with the cut side of the tomato, squeezing lightly and pressing down just a touch so that each slice is well lubed with tomato love and you can see small bits of pulp and seed.
At this point, you can sprinkle the slices very lightly with salt if you wish. As much as I love salt, I prefer not to because I find the serrano to be salty enough to effectively ‘season’ each bite.
Tear the serrano into smaller strips and lay them astride the bread.
Serve these little toasts immediately or let them sit for 5 minutes to soften.
Try not to stand around looking flummoxed when you see how quickly these beauties disappear. Such behavior is simply not dignified.
That took, what, about 5 minutes to make? Don’t let this surprise you. Quality tapas is often ridiculously easy, allowing us to savor and enjoy the simplicity of exceptional ingredients paired well and served without unnecessary flourishes that might muddy up the flavor.
The next time you have friends over to watch a World Cup game, go forth and toast the Spanish team. Just don’t ham it up too much, or you might get pelted with tomatoes. **insert groans….HERE! **
Happy snacking, everyone!