The idea of gazpacho is irresistible on a hot sunny day. But because chilled soup is always a bit of a shock to the system, factors like texture and temperature that don’t matter as much in a hot soup, become unexpectedly important. Gazpacho is also one of those classic dishes that has been made all over southern Spain and beyond by generations of home cooks, so there are hotly contested issues of authenticity when it comes to ingredients and flavorings. Cucumbers? Peppers? Lemon? Onion? However, since I am no authority on such questions and have no Spanish grandmother to roll her eyes, or roll over in her grave, at my methods, I am going to aim for taste (I would have lost both my English and my Canadian grandmothers at “cold soup”). This version – an Epicurious recipe by Geraldine Ferraro (the chef, not that Geraldine Ferraro) that I tweaked extensively – turned out smoky, smooth, and a little spicy and is a good basis for experiments if you like to play with your food.
One thing everyone agrees on is that you start with a big pile of tomatoes – to be precise, 15 tomatoes, as ripe and fragrant as you can find. This works out at about 2 1/2 to 3lb. I chose cheap and firm plums that had been sitting in the sun all day, but since they’d been sitting in the sun on 30th Avenue in Queens, when I got them home I gave them a good wash:
1. Leave these be while you soak a handful of bread cubes in one cup tomato juice. This is a good way to use up the hard end of a baguette or a slice of bread that’s going stale. Leave the bread to soak for half an hour or so while you prepare the other ingredients:
2. Chop the tomatoes and pile in your biggest mixing bowl.
3. Peel and roughly chop a cucumber and a half (that is, one and a half cucumbers, not just one really great cucumber). You’ll need the other half later, so don’t go snacking on it too much. Pile it on top of the tomatoes – your kitchen will already feel cooler and fresher.
4. Peel and mince three to five cloves of garlic and throw in the bowl.
5. Season with two teaspoons kosher salt and most important of all, two teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika. This is one thing that if you don’t have, I recommend you buy for this recipe. If you don’t want to make gazpacho all summer long, which I trust you will, you can throw this into all kinds of meaty, tomatoey dishes and they will emerge warm, sweet and smoky – I’m sure it would make a killer barbecue sauce. This is also sold as Hot Pimentòn, and mine is the intrepid ‘Spice Hunter’ brand (they have a website if you can’t track it down.) I think I paid about five bucks for my jar, but it is worth it.
5. The next step is to blend the bejesus out of all of the above, including the tomato-soaked bread. I’m a zealous convert to my Cuisinart stick blender, although you do have to wear an apron, as little beads of tomato juice will bedazzle your kitchen during the blending process. But if your blender is good and solid and doesn’t emit scary smells of burning rubber, then pile everything in there – you’ll need to do it in two or three batches. Blend until everything is smooth-ish, and a lovely shade of peachy pink that I’d quite like to paint my hallway, if I could get the mixture to Home Depot for color-matching:
Now to be entirely honest, I think you could throw this in a bowl, drizzle over some oil and some finely chopped cucumber, onion and red pepper, and have done with it. It wouldn’t be all that smooth, but if you didn’t mind a rougher texture, it would taste pretty great. But my recipe called for further gazpaching, so I forged ahead.
6. Push all this blended goodness through a fine mesh sieve. This will leave behind a lot of solid tomatoey stuff, which my recipe sacreligiously says you should ‘discard.’ Are you nuts? There are all kinds of things this would be good for (and several of which I tried) – shaking up with some chilled vodka to make smoky Bloody Marys for your World Cup-watching brunch, spreading on toasted bread and topping with sopressata for lunch, or stirring into pasta with sausage and peppers and topping with soured cream. Basically – don’t toss it!
7. Once everything’s sieved you’ll have a bowl of frankly rather watery-looking soup. This just didn’t look like the substantial, silky gazpacho I had in mind, so I added about four or five big spoonfuls of the solids back in and blended again until I got to the texture I wanted.
8. Having already deviated from the recipe once, I now got even more insubordinate. The recipe called here for a quarter cup of sherry vinegar, which the otherwise fruitful aisles of my local supermarket did not yield. Cooking sherry, yes. Sherry vinegar, no. I therefore substituted two tablespoons red wine vinegar and for a lighter flavor, the juice of half a lemon which I had handy. I think white wine vinegar would probably work just as well.
9. Blend all of this together, and while the blender’s going, trickle in about a quarter cup of olive oil. The original asked for a full cup, which sounded like serious overkill, especially you should be using the good stuff here. Keep blending until everything’s incorporated and is smooth and as thick as you like, then cover and refrigerate for as long as you can – four hours or overnight if possible.
10. When you’re ready to serve, peel and finely slice your remaining half a cucumber, along with half a red bell pepper and half a small red onion. Toss these in a bowl with one teaspoon vinegar (whatever variety you used earlier); one tablespoon olive oil; salt and pepper:
To serve, place a generous spoonful of this veggie mixture in your prettiest shallow soup bowls and top with the gazpacho. You could probably stretch all this to feed six (with more chopped vegetables) depending on what you had on the side. I served it up with bread and a salad, and along with a couple of Pacificos it made a great summer dinner for two, with enough left over for a brunch starter, in little glass tumblers, for four.