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 

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