Ode to Tomato Bread

It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.

It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:

I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.

Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that  this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.

We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.

In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.

The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.

As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!

This is the bread of our un-affliction

For many years, I have expressed a desire to establish a tradition in our household of breaking the Passover fast with a loaf of freshly baked bread. I envisioned it as a simple way to reflect on the reasons  we (or at least I) abstain from bread, grains and other foods on Passover–as a reflection on slavery, oppression and states of human emergency in the past and in the present. While we talk about this during our initial seders, the rest of the holiday’s 8 days are generally spent gorging ourselves on matzoh balls and brisket, or quinoa and frittata, as the case may be. So I had this fantasy that I would bookend the holiday with some more thoughtfulness, marking its end with this conscious transition back to the foods we have avoided. I thought it would be impactful to start with something as simple, but fragrant and delectable, as fresh bread. It would be both a physically and emotionally satisfying way of returning to the land of the leavened. I imagined how wonderful it would feel to have the smell of freshly baked bread permeate the house.

Every year, though, I forget to do this until it’s too late. Until this year, when I finally ponied up. What is strange is that this year had Passover ending (this past Tuesday evening) during one of the busiest weeks, professionally, that I have had all year. It is therefore bizarre that this was suddenly the year I finally made good on my promise and baked up some bread. (Am I the only one who procrastinates through baking?) It was a pleasure, though, to take a few minutes from a day spent largely freaking out on my laptop to experiment with one of my favourite ever bread recipes: this honey-oat bread from the Green Mountain Inn in Stowe, Vermont.

I discovered this bread last summer, when I took a short trip to the Stowe area of Vermont with Graeme and his family. I love Vermont for about a million reasons, and food is very high on that list, especially in the summer when fresh produce is everywhere. Our first night there, we had dinner at the Green Mountain Inn, and it was the bread they gave us before the meal that blew us away. How often does that happen?  Just sweet enough and with the perfect doughy texture, we devoured it until they brought us more. The sweetness is so good with a little bit of butter, it’s not even funny. We asked the waitress what it was, and she told us it was honey-oat bread, which I made a mental note to try and find a recipe for when we got home. I googled it almost immediately upon returning, and was shocked to find that Bon Appetit had once printed the actual recipe for that exact honey-oat bread in their restaurant recipe section. It was either fortuitous, or a sign that it was indeed the best damn bread ever, and we weren’t the only ones to recognize that!

Such a treasured bread seemed like an obvious choice for breaking the fast, and indeed, the two loaves baked up beautifully and elicited happy sights as we dug into them. This is a very easy bread to bake (although I am definitely still perfecting it), and I cannot recommend it enough. In the future, I want to mess around with the recipe and see if I can incorporate some whole wheat flour into it, so that I can make it more of an everyday bread rather than a “treat” bread. But in the meantime, it has been two days since I baked it and there are just a couple of slices of the second loaf left; we just can’t resist the stuff. And also, we really, really missed eating bread.