This article was published in The Wine Advisor FoodLetter on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/food/tsfl20070830.php.
August has brought us another month of unusually dry, extreme heat, with a record number of days over 100F in our town; and nobody I know is even thinking about firing up the oven for such autumnal goodies as roasts, fresh-baked bread or pizza until things cool down.
For today, though, let's stay on theme with yet another cool, refreshing summer dish that requires little or no cooking and that takes advantage of summer's bounty: Gazpacho ("Gahz-pah-cho"), the Spanish tradition that falls somewhere between a very thick cold soup and a salad you can drink or eat with a spoon.
Popular all over Spain - I've had wonderful gazpacho in Madrid and the Rioja region - gazpacho is really most at home in Andalusia, the region of Southern Spain that incorporates Seville, Granada, the Costa del Sol and the Sherry country. Just a short jump across the straits of Gibraltar from North Africa, this is a place known for sunshine and searing heat, and Andalusians have been creating cool summer antidotes like gazpacho for a very long time.
Gazpacho traveled across the Atlantic to the New World with Spanish immigration, of course, and nowadays it's just about as closely identified with California as Spain. It has evolved scores of variations over time, often dropping the bread that's a core ingredient in the European version; adding avocados and all manner of other produce; sometimes hot-and-spicy, often mild; sometimes made chunky, sometimes buzzed into a smooth puree.
At its heart, though, gazpacho's fundamentals are consistent: It's a cold soup based on tomatoes, with cucumber, onion and green bell pepper as customary supporting players. The addition of bread is much more European, and evokes a culinary link with Tuscan panzanella ("bread salad"), which could be irreverently described as a chunky Italian gazpacho too thick to drink.
Here's a fairly simple method that I believe comes reasonably close to the Andalusian original. Bear in mind that it's easy to tweak to your liking, so if you want to leave out the bread, add a dash of hot sauce (or several), leave it more chunky or blend it into an even smoother puree, or add or subtract other ingredients, be my guest ... and let me know how it went. Just keep the tomatoes, cucumber, onion and bell pepper as your key ingredients, and you can still credibly call it "gazpacho."
Inspiration for today's column came from a recent, ongoing conversation in our FoodLovers Discussion Group, which you're welcome to read and join in. Click
(Serves two generously)
1 pound (480g) ripe tomatoes
1. Keep in mind that gazpacho is one of those folk recipes that just about every cook makes his or her own with minor variations. Exact quantities aren't very important, but the primary presence should be tomato; use enough cucumber, onion and green pepper that these three ingredients together roughly equal the bulk of the tomatoes, and your dish should be fine.
2. I always start by peeling and seeding the tomatoes. You don't absolutely have to do this, but it makes for a more refined finished product, which in the Andalusian version should be a smooth near-puree. Meaty plum tomatoes are best for intense flavor and texture, but any good, juicy and ripe garden tomato will be fine. Peel the cucumber, onion and bell pepper and cut them into chunks; peel the garlic and mince it fine.
3. If the bread is crusty or stale, you may want to soak it in a little water to soften it, then drain off the water before using.
4. Put the tomatoes, cucumber, onion, bell pepper and garlic into a blender or food processor with the bread, about two-thirds of the olive oil and the vinegar, and buzz it all into a fairly smooth puree.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste (and hot sauce if you wish, although in my experience you'll rarely see this in Spanish gazpacho, which gets just enough piquant character from the raw onions and garlic). Stir in a little cold water if it seems too thick (although thick is good). Put the gazpacho in a serving bowl, drop in three or four ice cubes, and refrigerate for an hour until it's very cold. Remember, this is food as air-conditioning.
6. While the soup is chilling, dice some tomato and chop additional cucumber, onion and green pepper fine. Set these out in small bowls so everyone can garnish their soup with these crunchy bits to taste. Croutons are good - it's quick and easy to cut more of your bread into cubes and toss them quickly in a skillet with olive oil and a little garlic until they're brown. For a more full meal, diced Serrano ham and diced hard-boiled egg are also traditional garnishes; and of course no one will complain if you add a crusty baguette on the side.
MATCHING WINE: This could be a tough match, particularly if you go the hot-and-spicy route. It should sing with a crisp, dry rosé, though (or for regional authenticity, a pink Spanish rosado). For even closer regional authenticity, try a fresh, young, bone-dry Fino Sherry or Manzanilla. A sparkling wine will work, and an off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc will get the job done.
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