It might’ve seemed a little early, but I had my first gazpacho of the season a couple of weeks ago when the weather was still in a death grip between winter and spring. Gazpacho is one of my favorite expressions of sun and vegetable spirit. A good version of the chilled tomato-based soup combines tang, texture and bright color. And atLe Fou Frog
one night, the shallow bowl that came my way had all of the above.
It seems as if everyone does gazpacho differently. You might find it as a fully blended liquid or a chunked-up salad in a sauce. At a restaurant in Tulsa recently, I downed a gazpacho made from apples and walnuts. The Frog’s version is somewhere in the middle; it’s close to Mediterranean tradition and exactly where I like it — and not just because it reminds me of the way it often comes out whenever I make an improvisational stab at it in the kitchen.
So I was inspired by Mano Rafael’s version, and when I asked for his recipe, what I got was a list of ingredients and some vagueness. I didn’t want to press my luck by asking more questions, so the other day I just plunged in and started rinsing, chopping and dicing.
First I cubed some days-old bread to make croutons (drizzled oil, sprinkles of smoked paprika, baked on a cookie sheet in a 300-degree oven). Of course, I almost forgot about them as I was working over the veggies, but I pulled the croutons from the oven at what seemed like the perfect moment (20 minutes).
Then came the veggies, all finely chopped: one large cucumber (mostly seeded), one red bell pepper (fully seeded), shallot and garlic.
I started with 16 Roma tomatoes, blanching them in boiling water a few at a time until the skins started to rupture, then plunging them into a bowl of ice water before peeling.
In the past, I’d often thrown the veggies in a blender or processor, but Mano’s version didn’t specify that. I decided to experiment, and pulsed a portion of each vegetable together (four tomatoes, etc.), plus a little cider vinegar and cumin (as the ingredient list called for), to see what would happen.
For the main version of the soup, I proceeded on. While chopping the tomatoes I took a whatever-happens attitude towards the seeds, tossing some, keeping some, basically because I wanted to preserve whatever liquid I could. I surprised myself when I realized I could carefully scrape the tomato water from the chopping board onto the knife edge and direct it into the bowl (anyone have a French term for that maneuver?). As I chopped and slopped, I couldn’t help but remember the lovely moment when the late Starker’s chef John McClure started his annual heirloom tomato dinner with simple little glasses of tomato water. Alone time in the kitchen is ripe for reverie.
As for gazpacho, Mano’s recipe called for garnishes to include the croutons plus chopped kalamata olives (I love my new cherry and oliver pitter!) and slivers of hard boiled egg. Done.
I set aside the garnishes and chilled two versions of the gazpacho for a couple of hours. One included the main ingredients plus about an eight-cup of cider vinegar and some water. The other included some of the blended (and slightly emulsified) ingredients to enhance the liquid base.
My Fou Frog go-between, the ebullient and excellent server J.P., told me that if I needed more liquid I could use vegetable broth. Another reliable source suggested water would be fine by itself. Cheaters, however, may take note (I hope I’m not channeling Rachael Ray here) that a little spicy V-8 is not unheard of in gazpacho creation. (But: sacré bleu.)
To tell the truth, in the end, when we tasted my two versions, neither my kitchenmate nor I could tell much of a difference.
I wouldn’t begin to suggest that my gazpacho was anywhere near as good as Mano’s (his veggies were more finely diced than mine), but it was pretty good. I probably should’ve used a little more cumin, too. Yet, I imagine that as the season unspools and the tomatoes get better, we’ll practice more often and I, for one, am ready for a great gazpacho summer.