My Last Gazpacho
As I prepared to go out on my fall-season tours, the temperatures suddenly started to drop. Although it came as a relief after an excessively hot August and early September, it quickly made me realize that I would have just one last chance to prepare gazpacho at home before the fall kicked in for good, sapping the tomatoes of all their flavor and leaving behind only hothouse impostors.
Silvia reminded me that many a restaurant would still be serving the dish throughout my tour, particularly in the south. But what a risk I thought, leaving it up to an unknown restaurant to give me my last impression of gazpacho for another 9-10 months.
I’m not trying to be a snob about home cooked meals, but how many of us have traveled to a faraway land, excited to try its most exalted dishes, only to be crushed by disappointment? Friends back home pressure us before we leave, “you must try the X, they’re famous for it!” We nod and wonder what excuse we’ll invent should we embarrassingly fail to try the X. Or worse, how we’ll spin the tale should the X not be up to scratch. We can hear it now, “you went to the wrong restaurant!”
As the expectations grow, so does our anxiety that we won’t like the X, even though we want to like it, if only because everyone we know likes it. This pressure, in combination with being exhausted after a long day of sightseeing (tourism is tough work), makes us easy prey for the more mediocre restaurants, waiting in pretty plazas with cushioned chairs, shamelessly churning out pitiful examples of national culinary treasures.
Sadly, this is often the case of gazpacho. Too many visitors, worn down by Spain’s summer heat, tumble into the open arms of an all-to-eager waiter pitching his or her menú del día, which kicks off with a watery and salty gazpacho. What’s amazing is that the dish’s ingredients are cheap and plentiful, which – in theory – would provide no reason for cutting corners… Equally discouraging are the restaurants who offer gazpacho on a gray winter’s day. On a walking tour of Madrid last December, I was shocked to see a sign offering (in English) cold (cold!) gazpacho… But I digress.
The point of sharing this with you, is that the crimes committed by some restaurants shouldn’t discourage you from trying and trying again. Don’t give up on one of the tastiest and healthiest of all Spanish dishes.
In my case, since I’d never even heard of gazpacho before arriving in Spain, I had nothing to be disappointed by. Then again, I’d never heard of a lot of foods in my own country either. Gazpacho however became an early part of my vocabulary. Learning a new language is often easier if there’s a rhyme thrown in somewhere, and I’ve never forgotten the expression, “Del gazpacho, no hay empacho“. “From gazpacho, there can be no bellyache,” despite the fact that too much cucumber will quickly dispel that theory. A friend also shared with me that gazpacho’s roots come from the Latin caspa, which meant leftovers, and is also, unfortunately, the modern Spanish word for dandruff…
I came across the dish my first summer in Barcelona, when my students would come back from lunch in an animated discussion about the food they’d just had and how good or bad it was compared to other examples they’d tried, with their mother’s recipe inevitably reigning supreme. Gazpacho and its “authentic” version was a constant part of this debate. Although almost all Spaniards will agree to its Andalusian origins, other arguments such as whether or not to include garlic, what type of vinegar to use, or how high the quality of olive oil should be, all ended in raised voices and hand gestures.
You can understand why I had the impression that a cold summertime soup was a long and complex process, requiring hours of preparation and dedicated kitchen time. “¡Que va!” my students told me, gazpacho is anything but complicated, and even Ferran Adrià, master of deconstructivist cuisine, has stuck to a basic formula for his version.
The only thing I had to worry about was to make sure that the tomatoes were del huerto (from a vegetable garden), and after that I could throw in whatever I wanted… So much for the “authentic” recipe.
As I experimented more and more each summer, I realized my students were right. There’s no hiding bad tomatoes. Unfortunately, Madrid city center contains no exclusive farmer’s markets, except for the much-too-infrequent Dia del Mercado. Otherwise, super fresh produce from the neighbor next door is relegated to villages outside the city.
The most frustrating part about the short supply of quality tomatoes, is that the last gazpacho of the year usually comes not long after we’ve spent a week or so with Silvia’s parents, at a small coastal town in the province of Tarragona.
While the un-named town is rather simple, its most prized attribute – besides the beach of course – is el huerto de la vieja (the old woman’s vegetable garden). Every few days, when la vieja decides to open her garage doors, village dwellers form a line around the corner to pay village prices for the most mouth-watering tomatoes I’ve ever tried. José, my father-in-law, quarters them and sprinkles minced garlic and olive oil over the top for his pre-lunch snack. Hence, his initial hesitation to let me make gazpacho with the rest of the supply. But so convinced was he by the final product, that now he proudly tells la vieja the plans we have for her tomatoes.
That tomatoes should be such an integral part of gazpacho today, and the idea that gazpacho without tomatoes just isn’t gazpacho, is contradicted by the soup’s history.
As is so often the case, food historians aren’t able to put an exact date on gazpacho’s origins, although cold soups are known to have existed in the Iberian Peninsula even before the Romans occupied Hispania. One of the most primitive versions contained nothing but old bread, garlic, vinegar, olive oil and water. Yum…
The extended use of almonds by the Moors meant that this ingredient would be added to the mix following their 8th century invasion of Iberia, and the result can still be found today in the much loved, chalky-white, ajoblanco. Tomatoes and bell peppers wouldn’t make their appearance in the recipe until the culinary discoveries of the New World began to creep their way into Spain’s daily diet. The new ingredients would have added color to the dish, but probably did little for its aesthetics, since for centuries, gazpacho was made by beating everything into a mush, and must have looked like a cold vegetable porridge…
In the second half of the 20th century the immersion blender arrived in full force and has been a mainstay of every Spanish kitchen since. We use ours between three to four times a week and have run several into the ground over the last three years. It was with this instrument that gazpacho would change once again, now being liquefied into a silky reddish-orange finale.
When I first started making gazpacho, I admit to skipping over certain instructions. I wasn’t cutting corners, it’s just that I found certain steps less appealing than others.
Would I soak day-old bread in water and squeeze out the excess liquid through my fingers? How disgusting, I thought. No bread then.
Would I strain the soup to in order to achieve that smooth texture? What a pain in the %#@, I thought. While Silvia supportively held back her comments, I preferred to fool myself into believing that this chunky, seeds-and-skin version was my own throw-back interpretation.
Would I add enough vinegar to give it a firm backbone? Vinegar was for store-bought pickles. I hated pickles. No vinegar, I decided.
And after these well-intentioned decisions, I couldn’t figure out why my final product tasted nothing like gazpacho. So here’s what I learned: follow the recipe. Later on you can experiment all you want.
This recipe has long been my favorite, and although I play with it now and then, it’s been difficult to improve on. It’s been adapted from the Joy of Cooking Spanish equivalent, Simone Ortega’s 1080 Recetas de Cocina. At over 3,5 million copies sold since its original publication in 1972, it’s the best selling Spanish cookbook…ever. Fear not, it’s in English as well!
“Authentic” Gazpacho Andaluz Recipe – Serves 6
Adapted from Simone Ortega’s 1080 Recetas de Cocina.
- 1.5 kilos of tomatoes cut into quarters (around 3.3 lbs)
- 1 medium sized yellow onion, sliced into half moons
- 1 cucumber, with skin removed, cut into chunks
- 1 large green bell pepper, cut into thick strips that can be easily blended
- 1/2 baguette that’s one day old
- 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 to 4 tablespoons of sherry vinegar (depending on your love of vinegar).
- salt to taste
- served as an optional side dish: small cups of diced cucumber, green bell pepper, tomatoe, and crutons.
- Ortega conspicuously leaves out garlic from her recipe…
1) Put the tomatoes, onion, cucumber, bell pepper and olive oil into a large pot and blend into a thick paste. Many recipes suggest adding water, but there’s usually enough liquid in the tomatoes to avoid this, which would otherwise dilute the taste.
2) Use a pasta colander to strain the blend into a separate bowl. If you want to make sure that absolutely no trace of seeds or skins make it into the final dish, you can use a chinoise, but the thinner the strainer, the thinner and more watery the soup, and the more bread you may have to use, to thicken it to a texture you like.
3) Break the baguette into chunks and place them in a bowl filled with cold water. Many gazpacho recipes avoid this step, and hence the squeezing of mushy bread by squeemish hands. Instead, they place the chunks of hard bread directly into the soup and let them soak up the soup’s own liquid before blending a second time. There’s nothing wrong with this method once you have more practice at eyeing the correct amount of bread. But if not, you risk putting too much bread into the soup, from which there’s no return…and the taste of bread will dominate the other flavors. Originally this recipe was one of many by which you could take advantage of old bread, and I’m sure there were some very “bready” gazpachos in the past. But for me, the bread serves to add a nice creaminess in both texture and flavor but shouldn’t actually contribute the “flavor” of bread. By soaking the bread in water first, then squeezing out the excess, and then adding chunks bit by bit, you’re able to taste the gazpacho after each blended chunck of bread is added, to make sure you don’t go overboard.
4) Now that you have your strained gazpacho base with the desired amount of bread blended in, add the sherry vinegar (a tablespoon at a time to be safe) and salt, then blend up again.
5) Once you’re happy with the levels of vinegar and salt, store the gazpacho in a bowl that you can seal, or cover with plastic wrap. Then place in the fridge overnight. If you must, you can serve the gazpacho after some 5 hours in the fridge, but the result is much better the next day, when the flavors will have blended together and the soup will be perfectly chilled. Serve cold and allow guests to spoon in their own diced up cucumbers/bell peppers/tomatoes and/or crutons.
Last update: March 7, 2014