Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to Make the Perfect Gazpacho

At its best, gazpacho is an improvisational dish.

The first time I tasted it was at a swanky garden party, decades ago -- served in a big crystal square punch bowl and ladled into little square shot glasses. I immediately asked the host for the recipe, and he said, "oh, I don't have one. I just know what goes in gazpacho, and I put it all in, until it's done." I didn't have that level of confidence as a cook or a host, so I spent years (and years) looking for the perfect recipe (Moosewood, Martha Stewart, Barefoot Contessa), and none of them tasted as good as his did.

He was right. It's better without a recipe, but that isn't helpful to someone who's a novice like I was when he told me that. I spent years of trial and error perfecting my version.

Here's the how-to of the batch I made last weekend, including a few secrets I've learned along the way.

Start with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in about a two-to-one tomato-to-cucumber ratio. I go for tomato varieties with high acid, and a lot of tang, not sweet. (Sometimes I will use all-yellow tomatoes and peppers and make Golden Gazpacho; it's a little sweeter.)

A lot of recipes suggest insane amounts of tomato prep (peeling, seeding, dicing, etc). I don't do any of that. I core them, and cut them into rough wedges (no precision necessary.)

I do peel the cucumbers, and I scrape a few of the seeds out with a spoon (I certainly don't exert myself though.) They get a rough chop.

Here is secret number one: in the Summer, I always have cucumbers prepped  in the fridge, in a little bit of white vinegar, salt, whole (tellicherry) peppercorns, and a sprig of fresh dill. We call them table pickles. This is no place for fancy balsamics -- the plainer and whiter the better. (Fresh vinegar-soaked cucumbers in orange Tupperware were a staple on my grandmother's summer kitchen table my entire childhood, and I've stuck with this tradition -- they are the perfect base for a lot of chilled summer soups, which would likely strike her as a waste of a perfectly good cucumber.)

I chop everything on a big plate -- not a cutting board -- and then dump everything, juice and all, into a giant Tupperware pitcher as I go.

Whatever peppers I have on hand, I seed and rough chop a few, but nothing of any real substantial heat -- poblanos or anaheims are good. Key Largos are the best. Bananas will do too. I chop and add a stalk or two of celery. If a guest says they don't like celery, I chop and add a stalk or two of celery. Gazpacho does not have the right consistency, or flavor, without it.

For herbs, I assemble about a handful of whatever I'm growing in any given summer (and I have small hands; you might need less or more):

basil (I have lemon basil; lime basil; and regular basil -- any or all will work; I also have Thai basil and cinnamon basil, and those would not work)

cutting celery (I grow it; celery leaves will work fine if you can't find it)
garlic chives
flat-leaf parsley

To this handful, I add scallions -- then I hold the handful over the pitcher and snip it all up with scissors (no fancy chiffonade or anything). When I get down to the stems, I stop snipping.

I zest a lime over the pitcher (with a wood rasp).Then I roll the lime on the counter, quarter it, and squeeze in all the juice. (Cut the lime vertically, not horizontally, and you'll get more juice.)

Secret Number Two: I use an entire bulb of garlic in about a one-gallon pitcher, BUT I roast off the garlic ahead of time (one bulb, olive oil, salt, pepper, in foil, about an hour in a low oven, until it squeezes out like butter) -- like the table pickles, this is something I tend to prep on the weekends so I can use it all week. If you want to use raw garlic... well, I wouldn't. Not in this. But if you did, for God's sake don't use a bulb. Maybe less than a clove.

If I have it on hand, I add a drop or two of fancy honey (no more), and a drop or two of fancy olive oil. If I don't have the fancy stuff, I leave it out. The flavors here are pretty delicate.

Secret Number Three: I blend the pitcher with an immersion blender. There's no setting on the regular blender or a food processor that will get it to perfect gazpacho consistency -- when it turns pink and foamy on top, it's done, and is ready for salt and pepper. Tomatoes eat an insane amount of salt; it has to be done to taste.

If it needs thinned at all (it probably won't), Secret Number Four is, I add a drizzle of vodka. This is not like the Celery. If I have guests who are alcoholics, I absolutely leave this step out. A little club soda is fine. Then into the fridge.

Secret Number Five isn't a secret at all; it's clearly visible in the pictures. I rim glasses in lime juice and dip those in herbed salt and pepper.
The herbed salt and pepper is: any fancy finishing salt or kosher salt; fresh ground pepper; lime zest; any leftover herbs and cutting celery; celery salt.

I garnish with anything I'd use to garnish a bloody Mary (a lime slice, a Rick's Pick, mean beans, an English cucumber spear, etc).


Why I Hate Paula Deen 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Everybody's Reading 'Bastard' (I am reading Bitch)

Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) has new short work out, "Everyone's reading Bastard."

Bastard! is the title of the new column Charlie's ex-wife Elaine has begun banging out at the newspaper where she works.

"He didn't read the Sunday newspaper that Elaine worked for, not any more. He'd had to stop. Elaine wrote profiles, features, and columns, on the face of it about current affairs and the arts, but over the years, Charlie had come to feel as though her only real subject was him."

He initially thinks he will withstand the worst of it -- most of her stories have long been part of the family narrative anyway. "Everybody laughed. That's what family stories were -- amusing accounts of the messes and the fuckups. Take away the love and the laughter, narrate the stories as if the characters had acted with malice and self-absorption, and everybody was in a bleak independent film about alcoholism and schizophrenia and child abuse."

Then he realizes it could get worse. It get always get worse. "Bastard! introduced a new and terrible idea...what if Elaine had, despite all appearances to the contrary, actually been reigning herself in? What if their marriage had been inhibiting her? Was it possible that Elaine was only just now taking the gloves off? He thought again about the timing of the request for the divorce. He was beginning to feel as though he'd been drawn against Bobby Fischer in a school chess tournament."

He meets a new woman. "Bitch." Her ex-husband is writing a facing column about her.

Is she a bitch? Is he a bastard? Who knows? As Charlie points out, "it was easy to be nice to an attractive woman over a dinner table. The despair came later, with children and tiredness and the shreer drudgery of marriage and monogamy."

The landscape has just changed now that everybody has a microphone. "Now everyone could get access to something -- a cable TV show, a free newspaper, a digital radio phone-in -- as long as they were prepared to say something stupid and provocative, with no expectation of money."

His mother advises he'd be well served to not make the same mistake again, but he doesn't know what the mistake was, but tells her, "I'll bear that in mind in the unlikely event that I ever fall for someone with her own newspaper column an an insatiable desire to expose all."

An excellent story for Writers and the Unfortunates who love 'em.