As August winds die down and summer comes to a close, we prepare to receive the season's final gift. Proving that the best is often saved for last, summertime kindly eases our pain at its departure by leaving a bounty of tomatoes in its wake. Red, ripe and sweet at last, our local tomatoes are ready for action.
Versatile as well as delicious, fresh tomatoes offer endless possibilities, from light fresh salads to rich and thick sauces. If you've grown your own, you might oven dry or can them to deal with the bumper crop. My favorite way to enjoy late summer tomatoes is by making them into gazpacho, a cold Spanish soup. But then again, it's not entirely Spanish.
Indigenous to the Americas, tomatoes weren't tasted by Europeans until Columbus brought them home from his big adventure. Consequently, they're a relatively new addition to a basic recipe that has been prepared in Spain and across southern Europe for more than 2,000 years.
Without refrigerators or central air conditioning, ancient Europeans stymied the summer heat by eating cool soups that were both hydrating and refreshing. Since Roman times, the base for such concoctions has been elemental: salt, bread, vinegar, olive oil and garlic. Roman legionnaires carried these ingredients throughout the empire as a base for their meals, sometimes adding ground almonds or wild greens and a bit of water to make a nutritious soup. Many centuries later, when tomatoes arrived in southern Spain, they became the most popular additive to the old mixture, and red gazpacho became synonymous with summertime in Seville.
The good news is that you needn't head off to Andalusia to try gazpacho for yourself. You can find it at several restaurants here in town, including La Baguette where it's a summer staple. Shuga's has also gone gazpacho for summer, adding crunchy bits of carrot, onion, celery, and a healthy dose of hot chili pepper, with a heat that builds forward from the back of the throat to the lips as you slurp it down. If you seek variety, the mad scientists at Sencha whip up several variations on the gazpacho theme; just roll the dice and wait to see what happens.
But even I get tired of going out (yes, really), and my favorite place to eat gazpacho is in the comfort of my own home. It is truly easy to conquer the basics. So grab your shopping list, because we are going to have ourselves a gazpacho lesson, starting with the traditional Andalusian master recipe. This involves making a smooth base to which an array of chopped veggies are added at the table. For four servings of the base, you will need:
2 pounds ripe red tomatoes (peeled if you like)
1 large green bell pepper
2 cloves garlic
A few slices or a chunk of day-old white or sourdough bread, crusts removed
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons coarse salt
Start by soaking the bread in water for a few minutes. Drain out the excess water and retain the softened bread. Next, crush the garlic and salt together in a mortar and pestle, or you can finely chop the garlic, sprinkle the salt over the top, and smash it into a smooth paste using the back of the knife. Move the mixture into a blender and add the bell pepper (stem and seeds removed, cut into about eight pieces), the tomatoes, bread and vinegar. Start the blender on low and drizzle in the oil to emulsify, creating a smooth, creamy texture. Pour this off into a serving bowl or a Tupperware container and refrigerate until cold. Just before serving, check the flavor for salt and vinegar, making sure to keep it refreshing.
While this chills, prepare the garnishes that Spaniards serve in little bowls all around the main soup, allowing each diner to custom flavor the dish. Traditional garnishes include finely diced onion, tomato, bell pepper, cucumber, hardboiled egg and croutons, but there are no limits.
Once you get this down, go wild. You can vary the flavors by using grilled squash, roasted vegetables or hot peppers, or change the texture by leaving the whole thing smooth. What matters most is the chemical reaction between the fat in the oil and the acids in the garlic and tomatoes -- this alone makes for smooth soup.
My mom made the first gazpacho I ever loved, and it's even easier to make. You need:
3 large tomatoes, peeled
1 green bell pepper
1 clove garlic
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 small onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Just put everything in the blender with a little water and process until smooth. Pour into bowl and add 24 ounces or 48 ounces of V8 juice. Chill it and serve alone or with a garnish array.
Good gazpacho is not only nutritious but also extremely versatile. It will keep for a few days in the fridge, and it's portable for picnics and potlucks. Few foods are more refreshing on a warm summer evening. So reap summer's final reward, and try your hand at gazpacho while the farmers' market tomato bins are overflowing with ripe, red fruit.
-- David Torres-Rouff