Monday, August 2, 2010

Gazpacho Rediscovered - A Soup with a History to Match its Bold Flavors

Gazpacho, or what is sometimes referred to as "liquid salad", couldn't be a more perfect choice for the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers ripening right now in gardens across the nation. With spice and flavoring variations to meet the tastes of every palate, not to mention a long list of garnish options, gazpacho can be everyone's "go to" summer soup. (Sorry, couldn't resist the Rachel Ray-ism).

An impressive history, this gazpacho: even the derivations of the word make great reading - do check out the post from the blog What Holt and Barbara Had for Dinner. To summarize, the word gazpacho may be of Mozarabic origin, similar to the Spanish caspicias, meaning crumbs, worthless things. Maybe, too, it has to do with the ancient Greek word, gaza, meaning treasure.
As a thing to eat, the "soup" probably had its origins as almonds, stale bread and garlic worked laboriously in a mortar, and then mixed with olive oil and a little vinegar - food for peasants working in the fields, perhaps. Most definitely, a tasty way to use up stale bread. And not only did the medieval Spanish have their ways with dry bread: the Greeks had their skordalia, the Arabs dipped dry bread in oil and vinegar, and the Italians made panzanella: juicy vegetables and olive oil set to steep over dried bread.
One thing is certain, the earliest gazpachos had no tomatoes. Tomatoes were first brought to Spain from the gardens of Montezuma by the early explorers and colonizers. Even then, it took some time for the Europeans to trust that the tomato, a member of the nightshade family, wasn't poisonous. So, tomato-based preparations don't show up in cookbooks until much before the mid-17th century. (This from Clifford Wright, who has a a beautifully researched write-up on gazpacho in the Food History section of his website.)

I like how gazpacho even appears in an early American cookbook! Imagine that: Mary Randolph, whose cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, was first published 1824, has a Spanish Gaspacho in her recipe collection. Nothing boring about the early American kitchen!

What's agreed about gazpacho is that it is a mix of pureed vegetables, usually tomatoes, peppers and cukes, and these are added to a base of moistened stale bread, garlic and salt, all flavored with olive oil and and vinegar. The mortar and pestle was the tool of choice long before the blender or food processor came into use, and there's definitely something to be gained by re-introducing this implement into the mechanics of the recipe (more about this later in the post). Gazpachos can be made with grapes and almonds, with watermelon and chili peppers, even with fish - I once made Paula Wolfert's wonderful Fava Bean Gazpacho with Sherry, White Raisins and Green Grapes (from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen) - an exquisitely rich and savory gazpacho. But today, with a basket of season fresh tomatoes, I wanted to work out a more typical version. The ingredients were to be "traditional", but I wanted to try working the soup with mortar and pestle, food mill, and no blender. I had a hunch that the old fashioned grinding and pounding of the garlic and especially the peppers with the pestle would do wonders for the texture, and I think I am right. The cells of the vegetables are worked to break down their essentials, including oils and starches, and you can actually see the silkiness develop as you work the peppers against the side of the mortar - well worth the considerable extra effort. In the blender, the blade just minces through the food, cut/slicing the fibers but not breaking them down. To economize, I used a food mill to puree the seeded tomatoes (I didn't have to skin them), and I did finally use the immersion blender to blend the moistened bread with the garlic and peppers once they had been "pestled". I had read about using a raw egg yolk to add richness, and this turned out to be a great idea - I added some olive oil and cumin as I beat the yolk for extra depth, too.

Lots of folks have special hints, provisos and family secrets for their great gazpachos. Clifford Wright cautions that no one ingredient should ever predominate - gazpacho should be "a completely harmonic result of an orchestra of flavors" , others say that while the list of potential toppings is long, never use more than two or three per serving. As for famous family secrets, I have a few from a charming story by way of a friend who is lucky enough to have an actual Andalusian mother-in-law, who made what I always imagined must have been the most luscious and refreshing gazpacho (and my friend said it indeed was!)

When my fellow foodie friend Liddy, first visited her husband's family back home in Spain, she was eager to learn all about gazpachos and ollas from the source. So, she sat coyly in the kitchen with her new mother-in-law and asked leading question after leading question, hoping to get to her cooking magic. She asked, do you peel the peppers or grill them to remove the skin. The answer, with a smile, was, "it depends". When she asked, can you use canned tomatoes for your gazpacho, again, it was "it depends." What liquid do you use to soak the bread? "Ah, well, that depends"... For every ingredient and step of the recipe it seemed, there was, "it depends." Just before poor Liddy was totally exasperated, and still feeling too new in the family to ask about all those dependancies, her mother-in-law turned teary, walked over to her, gave her a melting hug, and said, "I have waited years to finally have a daughter-in-law to share with all my secrets." Of course, over the years of wonderfully heartwarming visits, most of the secrets were eventually revealed:
You use a peeler to peel the peppers if they have been in the refrigerator and are no longer sweet because there's no sugar left to carmelize when you singe the skins! You grill and scrape away the skin only if the peppers are at their freshest and sweetest!
What liquid is best? If you have enough stale bread you can use the juice of the tomatoes after they are pureed. But, if you have only a little piece of dry bread, you seed all the tomatoes, scraping the gelatinous seed clusters into a dish and then squeeze the juice onto the bread - the almost jellied seed liquid adds more body to less bread!
My all time favorite nugget of gazpacho wisdom has to with using canned versus fresh tomatoes. According to the Andalusian mama, after you cut up the tomatoes, you take a deep whiff of their fragrance. If the smell reminds you of watermelon (as tomatoes sometimes do when not their freshest), use canned tomatoes for the gazpacho, and the ones you just cut up should be put to another use.

So much for the anecdotal. I finish with the recipe which pretty fairly matches what I worked on today:

2 lbs freshest Roma tomatoes, seeded
2 to 3 mini bell peppers, any color
1 long thin pepper, more sweet than hot
1 small cucumber, seeded
2 large cloves garlic
2 to 3 stale slices from a long french bread
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons good quality sherry vinegar
1 egg yolk + 1 tsp olive oil + heaping 1/4 tsp cumin, whipped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For my version, I make no apologies for the rather involved and tedious methods applied - this was definitely a labor of love on a morning when I had plenty of time!
I started by seeding all tomatoes, saving seeds and seed liquid, squeezing the liquid through a cheesecloth onto the broken up bread pieces for a good 20 minute soak. While the bread softened, I cut up all the tomatoes, salted them and let them sit in the sun to sweeten further - 1 hour, and probably not an essential step. While tomatoes steeped, I removed the skins from the little peppers by singing them over the gas burners, slipping off their skins under cool water. I liquified the garlic with a scant teaspoon of salt using the mortar and pestle, then worked the peppers to a smooth silky paste in the same way. (The flavor and texture of the garlic and peppers was a major taste moment.) I also used the mortar and pestle to grind up the cucumbers with a dash of salt - this was actually pretty quick and easy. The bread was now soft, so I used the stick blender to blend together the bread with all the "ground" vegetables (no tomatoes yet!), then folded in about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. I blended until I had a very smooth paste - this by choice; some might prefer a grainier texture in the finished soup. The tomatoes I pureed using the medium disk of a food mill - that gave me some pulp for body, but no skins. Next I stirred the tomatoes into the bread-vegetable base, seasoned with just a little more salt, more olive oil, pepper, the vinegar, and chilled by stirring in a glassful of crushed ice. So far, I had a very bright tasting, refreshing and rich gazpacho. I served this plain, with some toasts with chopped egg, olives, parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. Very good.

Better, however, was the reserved half of the broth that I mixed with a raw egg whipped with the teaspoon of olive oil and cumin! This version was creamy without being mellow, had depth, but still really tasted just as fresh as the vegetables themselves. Here below, topped with some chopped olives and white of egg.