California Cook: Want to know what the summer sun tastes like? Try this twist on traditional gazpacho
Want to know what the summer sun tastes like? Do this: Chop a couple pounds of tomatoes. Put them in a blender with some bread you’ve soaked in water, some garlic and other seasonings. Turn on the blender and slowly add olive oil until the color turns from bright red to burnt orange.
Gazpacho — or, more accurately in this version, salmorejo — is like a sun-drenched summer afternoon captured in liquid form. The texture is rich and creamy, but because it comes from puréeing with bread, the flavor is transparent. You’re tasting ripe tomato in its essence.
If your only experience of gazpacho is one of those salad-y mixes of finely chopped tomatoes and vegetables, this version might come as a shock. Its taste is forceful, almost primal. In fact, if you want to serve it in a big bowl like a gazpacho, you’ll probably want to water it down a little bit. Blend in ice cubes — this not only softens the flavor but chills the soup at the same time.
Served straight up, this stuff is best doled out in small sips — one shot glass or demitasse cup at a time. I like to tone it down a bit further with a spoonful of whipped goat cheese. The contrasting flavor makes the tomatoes taste even more intense. A straight shot like this works especially well as part of a tapas selection, as a counterpoint to a mellow dish like a frittata or Spanish tortilla.
Though the recipe is extremely easy to make, there are a few things that will make it better.
You don’t need to peel the tomatoes, but you should seed them. The peels will purée in the blender, but the seeds will chop and they seem to me to add a bitter flavor.
And yes, the blender is the tool for this. I’ve tried it several times in the food processor and the result just never gets as creamy.
You might need to purée in a couple of batches, and you’ll almost certainly need to tamp down the ingredients to make sure the blades catch.
Start on low speed and be patient. It might take a half-minute or so for the puréeing to begin. The liquid from the first tomatoes puréed will make the rest go more quickly. You will be able to see it happening, starting at the bottom of the jar, progressing up.
Once most of the mixture has been puréed, crank the blender up to high to finish.
Season aggressively with salt and vinegar. Remember that chilling reduces flavor intensity.
Strain early and strain often. Set a fine strainer over a big bowl and pour the mixture through, stirring with a spatula or wooden spoon (scrape, but don’t press). Discard any bits of bread or tomato that don’t pass through. Then strain again into a pitcher before chilling. For the smoothest, creamiest soup, after it’s been well chilled strain it one more time before serving.
Finally, the quality of the tomatoes is absolutely key. I’ve made it a half-dozen times this summer, with everything ranging from indifferent supermarket tomatoes to the dripping beauties from the “Salsa Bin” at the Elser’s Country Farm farmers market stand. You probably don’t need to be told which was better, but it might surprise you to know by how much.
A dish like this is more technique than recipe — once you’ve made it, it’ll quickly become your own and you can vamp on the flavors as you like. My version is based on a version I learned from Spanish cookbook writer Janet Mendel, though I doubt she’d recognize it, what with the addition of the harissa and the goat cheese cream. Maybe she’ll just chalk it up to me spending too much time in the sun.
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