August 20, 2004
The end of summer is already visible on the horizon and I feel like it’s barely started. A strange one, at least here in New York. Grey and drizzle have predominated, blazing sun has alternated, and the usual July/August steambath just hasn’t happened. No dog days for us this year.
As anyone who knows me knows, I love to cook. During these warm months, I try not to turn the stove on more than I have to, so that means having fun with cold foods. I’ve always been a bit of a soup fanatic, and this time of year is perfect to experiment with the cold versions. I’m not talking about vichyssoise, which requires cooking and then cooling. I’m thinking cold fruit soups, cold herb soups, and, my favorite, gazpacho.
For those who aren’t familiar, well, first, just where have you been living? Second, it’s a cold vegetable soup, or maybe bread soup, or almond soup, or… and, umm, it’s from Spain, or Mexico, or South America, or… I’ve read through dozens of “official histories” of gazpacho and its origins and no one seems to agree on just what it is or where it is from. The name may have come from ancient Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, or any of several other proposed languages. The most prominent theory seems to be Andalusia in Spain, and that it involves pounding stale bread, garlic, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil together into a paste and then adding water to get your consistency right.
But walk into any restaurant here in the states that offers gazpacho and the most likely thing to be put in front of you is a bowl of fancy tomato soup. Cold. I’ve seen and tasted versions that were indistinguishable from Campbell’s tomato soup served straight from the can, I’ve seen versions that looked like they’d been constructed at the salad bar and doused with water, and every variation in between.
I’ve tried white gazpacho – a bread and almond concoction, redolent of garlic. I’ve tried yellow, green, orange, and red gazpacho. I’ve seen them with no tomatoes. I’ve seen them made with fruit – melons being the most prevalent. (In fact, finely diced watermelon replacing finely diced tomato in salad or soup makes a wonderfully refreshing alternative!)
Gazpacho is easy to make if you’re willing to forego classic notions of pounding in mortars and just have some fun. At it’s simplest, toss a piece of stale bread, a couple of tomatoes, a cucumber, a bell pepper, an onion, and a couple cloves of garlic into the food processor. Pulse until you get a coarsely chopped consistency. Add salt, pepper, olive oil, and a splash of vinegar, mix well, chill and serve a few hours or the next day later.
Recently, I went with an all-green theme for a dinner party. I wanted a touch of smokiness, so I spent a little extra time on this one. I charred some green tomatoes and some green “Italian frying peppers” (as the supermarkets insist on calling them) on my stove. I seeded the peppers, removed most of the charred skin from both tomatoes and peppers, and proceeded as above. Heaven in a bowl!
Charred Green Gazpacho
3 green tomatoes
2 green Italian frying peppers
3 cloves of garlic
1 stale bread roll
¼ cup sherry vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
The first step is the hardest one. Charring the tomatoes and peppers. You need an open flame, preferably the top of your stove or a grill. If you have an electric stove or induction burners, you’re pretty much screwed on this one. Go out and buy a small propane torch at your local hardware store…
Over a low to medium flame set the tomatoes and peppers on top of your burners. Let the skin come in contact with the flame and char. When it blackens, use tongs or your fingers to gradually turn them around so that pretty much all the surfaces get an even charring. Remove them and place them in a paper bag and close it. Let them steam for a few minutes – this helps loosen the skins, and infuses more of the charred flavor into the vegetables. Take a couple of paper towels and rub the skins off – it’s messy, but it works. You don’t need to get every bit of skin off, a bit of the blackened skin adds more to the smokiness of this dish. Open the peppers and remove the seeds.
Plop the tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, scallions, garlic, and bread roll into a food processor. Use the pulse feature, or, if you don’t have one, just pulse it on and off by hand. Process until coarsely to finely chopped. This is pretty much a matter of your personal preference and how chunky you want the final soup to be. Add the vinegar and olive oil and mix. Add some cold water to get the consistency you want – probably about ½ a cup, depending on how juicy the tomatoes were. Add salt and pepper to taste. Put in the refrigerator, covered, and chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Taste, add more salt and pepper if needed (after chilling you often will need to add a touch more).
Finely chop the chives, mix into a little crème fraîche (fancy sour cream, which you can use if you can’t find the crème fraîche). Ladle the soup into bowls, top with a dollop of the crème, enjoy. Eat.
I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.