Gazpacho. It’s a classic Seinfeldian conundrum. Is it a cold soup? A savory smoothie? A drinkable salad? What’s the deal?
It’s also a perfect and simple summer staple that hasn’t fared well in the US. Sure, you could say that about lots of far-flung foods that have been adapted and adulterated through the generations. But let’s just say that whatever the dubious qualities of Campbell’s canned tomato juice from concentrate may be—viscosity, high-fructosity—they are not improved by chunks of assorted garden vegetables.
Generally associated with Moorish Spain, gazpacho has a murky past. There are several etymological traces–to the Latin word caspa, meaning “little pieces,” and the Hebrew word gazaz, meaning “to break into little pieces,” among others–and its ancient origins point to the central ingredients of bread soaked in water, olive oil, and vinegar. There are versions with grapes and almonds. New World ingredients like tomatoes and cucumbers came later.
The version I grew up with—the one that dominated the daily specials boards at every university-town vegetarian cafe—is that chunky Osterized medley with too much red onion, old vinegar, and dried herbs. Not that there isn’t good chunky gazpacho out there—I’ve enjoyed the version at Good & Plenty to Go on W. 43rd and 9th Ave. There’s just so much bad chunky gazpacho.
It wasn’t until a trip to Spain, in the spring of 2005, that I discovered a way to leave all those chunks behind. Being our first trip abroad as parents, it was momentous. Our firstborn was 20 months, and we were offered a free house with a pool in Estapona, on the Costa del Sol. When that turned out to be less than the dream set-up it seemed to be at first, we jumped in the car and toured Andalucía. Quick stops in Cádiz and Jerez before we rolled into Seville in the early evening.
That was when we lost power steering on the rental car just before the left turn to the hotel in the Jewish quarter and ended up in Medieval blind alley, where we had to make a painstaking 15-point turn. But why dwell on that? Or the time our daughter, in an awesome display of defiance, squatted in a plaza, dredged her hand along the cobblestones, then slowly licked her open palm all the way up to her finger tips while the abuelas cried out in disgust. Or the day we spent cancelling credit cards and cursing our bad luck after we thought my husband lost his wallet—and before we found it that evening, resting conspicuously on the coffee table of our turned-down hotel room. (Memories!)
Let’s focus instead on those clean, crisp 1 Euro cervezas that were so perfectly refreshing after a day of humping through Seville in the June heat. And the fact that Spaniards (with the exception of the Iberian Airlines flight attendants) love small children, who make great dinner companions when you can park them, asleep in the stroller, next to your two-top on the plaza for tapas at 10 o’clock.
And let’s recall the lunch at that archetypal “nondescript outdoor cafe” where we first had red Andalusian gazpacho. It came silky smooth, bright with just enough garlic and sherry vinegar, and creamy with the bread that’d been soaked and blended in. Golden drops of olive oil pooled on the surface. And this time, the chunks were on the side: little condiment bowls filled with diced cucumbers, green peppers, hard-boiled eggs, and avocado.
It was transporting and provided brief lull before the next mishap (waiting for la grúa to come and tow away our broke-down car).
When we returned to the States, we quickly found a cookbook, ¡Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain by Penelope Casas, with a recipe for Andalusian gazpacho (from Bar Bahia in Cádiz) that will convert any gazpacho hater into a thirsty salad drinker. Straining the blended ingredients is worth the effort and produces a vibrant liquid infused with the ghosts of the vegetables. We make several batches between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which help us get through the sweat-soaked summer evenings in New York City like real Spaniards. ¡Joder! ¡Hace calor! Time for a dish of olives, some Marcona almonds, a glass of chilly rose, and a bowl of silky smooth, chunk-free gazpacho. ¡Disfrute!
Gazpacho Andaluz, Estilo Salvador
From ¡Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain by Penelope Casas (Knopf, 2004)
A 4 1/2-inch length of bread, cut from a long narrow loaf, crusts removed
2 pounds tomatoes, coarsely chopped
3 green frying peppers (about 6 ounces), coarsely chopped (Note: cubanelles work well here)
1 kirby cucumber, about 5 inches long, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, preferably Vidalia or Spanish, coarsely chopped
6-7 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup mild extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 cups cold water
Finely chopped tomato, green pepper, cucumber, hard-boiled egg, and/or avocado for garnish (optional).
Soak the bread in water and squeeze dry. Place the tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, onion, and garlic in a large food processor or blender with the olive oil, salt, sugar, vinegars, and bread. Process/blend until as smooth as possible (do this in two steps/batches if necessary). Pass through a strainer or chinois into a bowl, pressing with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid from the remaining solid pieces as possible. Stir in the water. Add more vinegar and salt, a little at a time, tasting after each addition, until the flavors are fully developed. Chill thoroughly. Taste again for salt and vinegar, and serve in chilled bowls with an ice cube in each, if necessary, to keep the chill (several mini ice cubes are more attractive). If you like, pass small bowls with the chopped vegetables so each diner can garnish to taste.