The time of tomatoes & pa amb tomàquet

August 29, 2011

The Chicago Botanic Garden just held its annual Heirloom Tomato Weekend, showing visitors how to grow and use the jewel-like treasures through chef demos and tastings, garden tours, a farmers market, and expert-led talks that ranged from seed saving to canning to even shopping for all things tomato.

The esteemed tomato panel let me hold the two-pound Gold Medal you see above, which was grown at at the Garden and destined for seed saving. They kept a close eye on me - wisely.

By the time I made it through the tomato trail to the market, the vendors at the Green Youth Farm & Windy City Harvest table had already sold out of their most beautiful tomatoes, also grown on the grounds.

They offered to sell me the remaining half dozen or so very ugly - even by heirloom standards - Cherokee Purples for $1. Sold.

I figured I should have enough to make my first pa amb tomàquet of the year.

“Bread with tomato” is the Catalonian national dish - if you can call it a dish. In its simplest form, it’s bread rubbed with tomato. It doesn’t seem like much, but the first time I had it - in Roses, Spain on a night off from El Bulli - it was the perfume of tomato captured in a hearty, satisfying bite.

When I got home from the Garden a few of the tomatoes had already burst their delicate skins. On a couple of others, I discovered fuzzy white mold in their cracks - those were immediately sent to compost. One remained intact. I sliced it open. It was perfect.

There are as many recipes for pa amb tomàquet as there must be for peanut butter and jelly. I make it by slicing crusty bread into fairly thin slices then toast them until the edges and surface are barely golden. I do rub with garlic - a point of contention - but lightly and on one side only. Then comes the tomato: rub the garlicky side with ripe tomato until there’s nothing left but tissue thin skin. Rub to the maximum tomato absorption capacity of the bread. You’re then supposed to drizzle on olive oil and sprinkle with salt. I like to drag an olive oil soaked anchovy filet over the surface of the still blood red tomatoed bread, then lay the anchovy across. Over the little oily fish, I shave fine curls of Manchego cheese, edible rind and all, to finish. I should warn you that this is the bacon-double-cheeseburger of the pa amb tomàquet world. For your first time, taste it in its most elemental form. Even with my variations, the tomato should reign.

Now comes the hardest part: the wait. If you need to leave the room, then do it. Leave the house if necessary. Ideally you’ll bide your time over a chilled glass of wine chatting with friends - almost forgetting the wait. Wait until summer’s heat and slowed time meld the flavors together. How long depends on too many factors to say: the texture of your bread, its drink of tomato - 10 minutes? Fifteen? You’ll know not from your first slice, but your second. You’ll devour your first. By your next you’ll vow to wait just a little bit longer next time, for the time of tomatoes.

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