Growing up, I was never much of a breakfast person. The idea of choking down anything substantial before the sun was even up seemed ridiculous. Only those old Aunt Jemima frozen breakfast plates that came in the red boxes could rouse me. Something about the soggy pale hashbrown tucked under a layer of what seemed like lab-created scrambled eggs reminded me of how I wanted to be in those moments: warm, limp, an actual potato and not a human.
Once I got to college, I realized what a joy breakfast could be when you didn’t have anywhere to be before 11 a.m. I indulged in the finest of my school’s dining hall breakfast options, which generally included lukewarm pink turkey bacon and pancakes dotted with artificial blueberries. The presence of these appealing options meant that I usually didn’t have to think of making breakfast for myself until a few years later. That’s when I discovered the magic of pan con tomate, the famed Spanish breakfast dish.
Pan con tomate generally includes just a few ingredients, though variations abound: bread, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and salt. Grated or squished tomatoes are used to make a kind of sauce, which is then placed on top of the bread. Some recipes call for the garlic in the actual tomato sauce, though I prefer cutting a clove in half and rubbing it all over the freshly toasted bread. The olive oil is drizzled on top, and salt (preferably the flaky kind) finishes it off.
While bread drizzled with olive oil and dusted with salt had been popular since the time of the ancient Greeks, it wasn’t until 1884 that the tomato came onto the scene, according to food historian Nèstor Luján. He claims that the dish could be traced back to rural Catalonia and would have been utilized during particularly prolific tomato harvests. These tomatoes were paired with bread that had already hardened. The liquid from the tomatoes would revive the bread, moistening it and bringing it back to life.
If you’ve ever had pan con tomate before, then you know what a happy surprise it is to discover that all of these exceptionally simple ingredients could come together so perfectly. The crisp of the bread and the tang of the tomatoes go beautifully together, and the drizzle of fat and sprinkling of salt are simple enough to highlight the flavors of the primary ingredients without overwhelming them. Of course, I love how pan con tomate tastes, but what I love even more is the fact that it’s ultimately a method for preventing food waste.
The magic of pan con tomate is that it saves the ingredients in your kitchen that are starting to go off and gives them a whole new life, but not in a I-guess-I’ll-eat-this-so-I-don’t-waste-it kind of way. You actually want to use ingredients that are past their prime for this recipe. Of course, you can always just toast your bread, but hardened bread works best because it’s dry enough to soak up all the excess liquid from the tomatoes. Tomatoes that are starting to get soft and watery are desirable here because they’re easier to turn into sauce, but they’re also sweeter than their less-ripe counterparts. When paired with the right amount of salt, that sweetness shines in a way that deserves to be highlighted, which pan con tomate happens to do exceptionally well.
In light of the current tapas/small plates zeitgeist, it’s no wonder that I see pan con tomate on restaurants’ menus on a regular basis. It’s the kind of dish that feels special despite its simplicity (and I’m sure provides the restaurant with a large margin). But while a Spanish tortilla or patatas bravas can be difficult to make if you don’t have some experience in the kitchen, pan con tomate doesn’t have the same problem. If you can toast a slice of bread and put some tomatoes on top, you’ve done all you need to do. In around ten minutes, you can prepare yourself a breakfast that uses up your leftover pantry staples in the process.
As climate change continues to wreak havoc on our agricultural systems, it’s no secret that we as a society are going to have to find better, more sustainable ways to feed ourselves. To me, pan con tomate is an indication that this process of moving toward more sustainable options doesn’t have to be a drag and doesn’t have to make us feel like we’re missing out on the best of food—or the best of life. Beyond simple matters of flavor, there’s something about repurposing food that’s about to go bad that feels satisfying, nourishing itself.
Of course, plenty of cultures and cuisines have dreamt up ways to prevent food waste, to eat what they had and to make it delicious in the process. It’s time to start asking ourselves how we can make more of our food in this fashion. And if it manages to save you from taking an extra grocery store trip during the week, even better.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.