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Forget what you know: This is gazpacho

Special to The Times

When late summer’s harvest gives us ripe, juicy tomatoes, thoughts turn naturally to gazpacho. Festive and flavorful, it’s August’s marvelous scarlet liquid salad.

Yet somehow, over time, what began as one of Spain’s great gifts to the world’s culinary repertoire has become a sort of anything-goes, toss-it-all-into-the-blender affair. An authentic gazpacho is as delicious as paella, and far easier to reproduce. Sadly, more often than not in the hands of American cooks, it’s a chunky, insipid puree that can only be rescued by the addition of more tomato juice.

Real gazpacho -- that is, tomato gazpacho made from the traditional ingredients used in Seville, capital of the cold soup -- is one of those simple, perfect dishes in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It has deep tomato flavor, sure, but never uses canned juice: Gazpacho demands only the ripest tomatoes. But underneath that, it’s got body and bite, which come from the bread and garlic that are its base. It’s got a little zing -- that’s from Sherry vinegar. And it’s got soul, which comes from good, fruity olive oil. Get the balance right, and you’ve got a dream of a summer soup.

Once you understand what defines gazpacho, then you can play, add garnishes, experiment.

It may come as a surprise that the tomatoey salad-soup that we all know and love has origins that have nothing to do with tomatoes.

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In fact, gazpacho predates the 16th century arrival of tomatoes (and peppers) in Europe; most culinary historians say that its roots go back to Islamic Spain, sometime between the 8th and 13th centuries. According to Clara Maria G. de Amezua, an authority on Spanish cuisine and founder of the Alambique cooking school in Madrid, gazpacho dates back to the 7th century.

In those days, garlic, salt and bread were pounded in a mortar-like vessel called a dornillo; vinegar and olive oil were then beaten in. The thick soup that resulted has much in common with sopa de ajo, a traditional hot soup that is still eaten in much of Spain, as well as ajo blanco, the cold soup from Malaga also known as “gazpacho blanco,” or white gazpacho.

Once Columbus brought back tomatoes and peppers from the New World, these were added to gazpacho, along with cucumber. The result is the marvelous cold soup that reaches its apogee in the restaurants and homes of Seville, where it’s served with a variety of garnishes, including finely chopped green pepper, cucumber, green onions, hard-boiled eggs and toasted (or dried or fried) bread cubes. It’s no accident that tomato gazpacho happened in Seville: According to De Amezua, the vegetables that Columbus brought spread through Spain via Seville.

It all begins with bread

Although there is debate among linguists as to the derivation of the word “gazpacho,” the most widely accepted explanation is that of Spanish philologist Juan Corominas, who suggests the origin is the pre-Roman Mozarab word caspa, meaning “fragments” or “flakes,” as in small pieces of bread.

“A gazpacho is not a gazpacho without bread,” says Anya von Bremzen, a cookbook author and expert on the cooking of Spain. In her upcoming book, “The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes” (HarperCollins, February 2004), she offers a traditional, Seville-style gazpacho -- using bread, of course. “And it has to have cubes of fried bread as a garnish,” she adds. It has to? “Well, no,” she concedes. “But they’re awfully good.”

Hmmm. So those cold, chunky pureed soups made from all the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions you can stuff in the blender aren’t exactly gazpacho. And tomato juice or V8 juice? Banish the thought. Watermelon gazpacho? It may be good (or maybe not), but in any case, gazpacho it ain’t.

Olive oil and vinegar, on the other hand, are essential; De Amezua calls them “the secret of a good gazpacho.” And apparently she isn’t the only one in Spain who thinks so: A Spanish saying counsels, “With a bad vinegar and a worse oil, a good gazpacho cannot be made.”

This holds as true for the red gazpacho that’s so celebrated in Seville as it does for ajo blanco, the “white gazpacho” of Malaga. In this version, garlic and salt are pounded together with bread and almonds, along with good Sherry vinegar and olive oil. In the summer, green grapes are added as a garnish; some cooks also add grapes into the puree. In spring, chunks of melon or apple might substitute as the garnish.

Gazpacho’s ability to refresh is important -- it’s more than coincidence that Andalusia, the region that invented it, is known for its hot summers. Vinegar was known to the Romans for its restorative properties, and that may be one reason its presence in the soup has stood the test of time. In Seville’s tapas bars, gazpacho is often served in tumblers, as a drink; trendier restaurants there present it in shot glasses.

Variations on Seville’s tomato gazpacho abound throughout Andalusia. In Jerez de la Frontera, chopped onions are added; in nearby Sanlucar de Barrameda, homemade mayonnaise is in the puree. Crushed cumin goes in the mix in Granada. In Cordoba, a thicker version called salmorejo, made without water, is served with strips of Serrano ham and chopped or quartered hard-boiled eggs.

Ajo blanco has its spinoffs too: One made from pine nuts instead of almonds is the order of the day in Almunecar, near Granada; egg yolks beaten into pounded garlic, salt, water-soaked bread, olive oil and Sherry vinegar make up a version in Peloche, a town in the Extremadura region, which is adjacent to Andalusia.

It took some time -- several centuries -- for gazpacho to achieve the kind of international renown it enjoys today. “The idea of gazpacho as a Spanish national dish is purely late 19th century,” says Clifford A. Wright, a food historian and author of the upcoming book “Little Foods of the Mediterranean” (Harvard Common Press, October 2003). “Two Spanish authors attribute it to Eugenia, the wife of Napoleon III, for introducing it to the French court,” he explains.

American de-evolution

We forward-looking, tomato-loving Americans have long been fond of it. Mary Randolph, a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson, included a gazpacho recipe in her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife.”

However, it didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the mid-20th century. M.F.K. Fisher, offering a recipe in her 1942 book “How to Cook a Wolf,” called it the “perfect summer soup ... a soul-satisfying thing to drink, chilled, midway in a torrid morning.”

By the 1960s, it was all the rage, especially in New York. “It was the thing that all the chichi people wanted to have,” recalls Jean Anderson, author of “American Century Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, 1997). Before long, a variation, buttermilk gazpacho, became the darling of the summer soup set; it included hard-boiled eggs, canned tomato or V8 juice, and a generous quantity of buttermilk -- but no bread, olive oil or vinegar. The version collected in “American Century Cookbook” doesn’t even have fresh tomatoes.

Most mid-century renditions of tomato gazpacho included neither bread nor olive oil nor vinegar but several, among them the 1964 edition of “Joy of Cooking,” called for fresh herbs, a la Fisher. Curiously, both Fisher’s recipe and that of “Joy of Cooking” had bread crumbs sprinkled on top.

Craig Claiborne’s recipe in the 1961 “New York Times Cookbook” called for four raw eggs and tomato juice, but no bread. Eighteen years later, “The Silver Palate Cookbook” echoed Claiborne, calling for three beaten eggs and canned tomato juice -- no bread. By then, the soup had become fashionable among the fledgling California foodies who were just discovering fresh pasta, balsamic vinegar and herbes de Provence.

By 1990, gazpacho had gone haute: Top New York chefs began copying each other’s gazpacho sauces when David Bouley sauced a white plate with one and topped it with a layered crab salad.

Since then, gazpacho’s popularity has endured. But lately, more traditional versions compel us. Here in L.A., Hans Rockenwagner has been featuring a traditional ajo blanco, made with grapes, at Rockenwagner Brasserie. He adds a drizzle of paprika oil for zip.

Lately, the soup has been very hot -- er, cold -- in Paris. Three years ago when I visited in early September, fairly traditional versions were on the menu in just about every other restaurant I dined in, including a couple of Michelin two-star establishments. Its popularity shows no sign of abating.

Smooth Spanish style

But nowhere is gazpacho as fashionable as it is today in Spain. “There are a wave of young Andalusian chefs who are all doing it,” says Von Bremzen. “People are obsessive about making it really smooth.” Toward that end, when Von Bremzen makes it at home, she first purees it in a food processor, then forces it through a sieve and finally whirls it in the blender or purees it again with an immersion blender. My rendition of Gazpacho Sevillana calls for merely using a food processor, but the obsessive -- or those who want to follow Spanish fashion -- will want to follow Von Bremzen’s three-step method.

Spain’s gazpacho obsession doesn’t end with smoothness, by any means. There’s actually a gazpacho deconstruction movement afoot on the Iberian Peninsula. Von Bremzen recalled one in which the bread was served apart from the soup, and the tomato was in the form of clear tomato-water. “It tastes like gazpacho,” she marvels, “even though it looks like water.”

If Spain has a king of gazpacho, that would be Dani Garcia, chef of Tragabuches, a restaurant in the Andalusian city of Rondo. Garcia serves a gazpacho tasting menu at his restaurant. One version has cherries in the puree in place of some of the tomatoes; it’s garnished with smoked cheese ice cream (no kidding) that has been dried and turned into a kind of dust. His ajo blanco consists of a flat, black caviar raviolo, with tiny threads of candied spaghetti squash strewn around it and the ajo blanco spooned over. Garcia’s cookbook, “Tragabuches,” includes recipes for seared tuna with tomato gazpacho sorbet and green apple gelee; ajo blanco with figs, marinated sardines and caviar; and ajo blanco ice cream with fresh lychees and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

Gazpacho sorbets are also big, especially in Madrid, where they’re being drizzled with olive oil. Traditional tomato gazpachos are being garnished with granitas, such as cucumber-mint.

It’s almost as if all of Spain has taken to heart the words of Sancho Panza, who said in “Don Quixote”: “I’d rather stun myself with gazpachos than to be subjected to the misery of an impertinent doctor who will make me starve.”

Of course, Panza was probably referring to the hot gazpachos of La Mancha, an aromatic soup made by hunters from whatever game they’d brought back and served on top of bread. But that’s another story.

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Ajo blanco (white gazpacho)

Total time: 25 minutes plus 2 hours chilling time

Servings: 6

Note: This recipe is adapted from one by cookbook author and Spanish cuisine authority Anya von Bremzen. Use a light, fruity olive oil, preferably Andalusian. Andalusian olive oil is available online from tienda.com or spanishtable.com. Do not use a peppery oil, such as Tuscan.

3 1-inch slices day-old rustic bread, medium round loaf, divided

2 cups ice water, divided

2 cloves garlic, crushed using a garlic press

1 cup whole blanched almonds, ground in a blender or food processor

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3cup plus 2 tablespoons light, fruity olive oil, divided

1 1/2 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar, or more to taste

2 cups baby lettuces of different colors

1 cup edible flowers, broken into petals

3 fresh black mission figs, cut into quarters

1. Remove the crusts from the bread slices and tear two of the slices into bits. Soak in one-half cup of ice water for 5 to 10 minutes, then drain in a small sieve, pressing to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Crumble into a blender.

2. Add the garlic, almonds, salt and one-half cup or more of the water to the blender, and blend to form a paste. With the blender running at the highest speed, drizzle one-third cup of the olive oil through the feed tube to emulsify.

3. Scrape the mixture into a mixing bowl. Whisk in the vinegar and the remaining 1 cup of water. The consistency should be that of very thick cream or very thin mayonnaise. Add a little more vinegar and/or salt to taste, if desired. Chill the soup for at least 2 hours so the flavors develop.

4. For the garnish, cut the remaining slice of bread into quarter-inch cubes. Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet, and cook the bread cubes to form golden brown croutons. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

5. Place the soup in a glass pitcher. Pile a small heap of the lettuce in the middle of a soup plate and top with flower petals, 2 fig quarters and some croutons. To serve, bring the pitcher to the table and pour the soup around the lettuce and figs in each bowl.

Each serving: 373 calories; 7 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 30 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 329 mg. sodium.

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Gazpacho Sevillana

Total time: 1 hour, plus 2 hours for chilling

Serves: 6 to 8

Soup

3 pounds very ripe tomatoes (about 5 medium)

1/4 cup Sherry vinegar

1/2pound French bread, crusts removed, torn into small pieces (about 3 cups)

3 cloves garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium red pepper, roasted, peeled and roughly chopped

3/4cup water

1/3cup best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

1. Peel the tomatoes and cut them in half horizontally. Set a sieve over a large bowl and gently squeeze the seeds and juice out of the tomatoes, letting the sieve catch the seeds. Roughly chop the tomatoes, reserve the tomato water and discard the seeds. Add the vinegar to the tomato water, stir to combine, then add the bread, combining to moisten the bread.

2. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic with the salt to form a smooth paste. Place the paste in the bowl of a food processor with the bread mixture and some of the tomatoes. Process until very smooth, then transfer to a large, nonreactive bowl. Process the remaining tomatoes with the cucumber, red pepper and water until very smooth. With the motor running, pour in the olive oil in a stream. Add the puree to the tomato-bread mixture, stir to combine and add salt and white pepper to taste. Chill for at least two hours.

Garnishes

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice

5 green onions, finely sliced

1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/3cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup chopped green olives with pimentos

2 eggs, hard-boiled

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup ( 1/4-inch) fresh bread cubes

1. Place the cucumber, green onions, bell pepper, pine nuts and green olives in small serving bowls. Peel and separate the eggs. Cut the egg whites into quarter-inch dice and place them in a small serving bowl. Place the yolks in a small sieve and, using the back of a spoon, press them through the sieve into a small serving bowl.

2. Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Stir in the bread crumbs and lightly brown. Place in a small serving bowl.

3. Ladle the chilled soup into small bowls, and serve with the garnishes.

Each serving: 184 calories; 4 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 582 mg. sodium.

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Gazpacho shots

Total time: 20 minutes, plus 2 hours for chilling

Servings: 8

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1 1/2cucumbers, divided

2 medium, very ripe tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped

1/2red bell pepper, veins removed, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons lime juice

3 ounces vodka

1/2teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika

1 lime, cut into 8 wedges

1. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic clove with one-half teaspoon of salt to a smooth paste. Seed and roughly chop the half-cucumber. Transfer the garlic paste to the bowl of a blender, and add the tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, the lime juice and the vodka. Blend on high speed until very smooth and frothy.

2. Place a fine-mesh sieve over a pitcher, and pour the mixture into the pitcher, pushing the contents through the sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. Adjust the seasoning and chill.

3. In a small bowl, combine the cumin, paprika and the remaining one-half teaspoon of salt. Peel the remaining cucumber and cut into 5-inch dipping sticks. Dip one end of each cucumber stick into the spice mix.

4. Pour the gazpacho into shot glasses, garnish with the spice-dipped cucumber sticks, and serve with lime wedges.

Each serving: 41 calories; 1 gram protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 295 mg. sodium.


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