Ever wonder why foods so often considered refined and fashionable originated, in actuality, from the poorest rungs of society? In today’s food culture, it’s curious how what we often cherish deeply is the sense that what we are eating is an exotic and mysterious delicacy. I am not to be excluded from this accusation. In fact, it’s safe to say that my cravings for food seem to fall into one of two categories. If I’m in search of the familiar (a hamburger and fries; biscuits and gravy), I’ll seek out the real deal, the most authentic spot, the epitome of that flavor. In other words, if what I crave is the familiar, I’m not in search of surprises. I’m in search of the hallmarks of what makes that food great.
This is, of course, quite different from when I crave the mysterious. In search of what is exotic and unknown, my hope is to be caught off-guard, to be carried away to another land, swept out to strange waters, heart aflutter, body afloat.
This was how I was introduced to gazpacho, a bracing ‘liquid salad’, served ice-cold. Before I ever knew its name or what it was made of (or certainly how to prepare it), I knew of the idea of ‘cold soup.’ Though eating something cold and refreshing on a hot day seems obvious and practical to me now, this was not the case when I was five years old. It was 1992: Bush and Yeltsin proclaimed an end to the Cold War, US forces were leaving the Philippines, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. But all I could think about was a “little town, in a quiet village, every day like the one before.”
Yes, I could not stop watching Disney’s animated feature film “Beauty and the Beast.” I could go into why the movie was so enthralling (the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque: the idyllic french village, (just as Belle herself) unaware of its beauty, situated so close to the dark and towering castle, as cold and brooding as the master himself), but I won’t. You’re probably wondering how a Disney film has anything to do with gazpacho. We’ll get there.
In one scene, Belle is lifted from her despair when the oddly endearing residents of the castle (Lumiere, Cogsworth, Ms. Potts, and Chip) regale her with the fineries of food and drink. As the music swells, a parade of pâtés, gastriques, and other delicacies fans itself out upon the table. I can remember one day at my grandmother’s house, as she watched this scene with me. She being of swiss-french origin, I imagine the mention of ‘ragout’ and ‘souffle’ got her thinking about her own childhood food memories. As the scene continued, she told me about ‘vichyssoise,’ a cold soup her mother often served when she was young. For whatever reason, despite my deep interest in the film, I found myself more interested in a bowl of cold soup. And though I thought about it countless times in the years that passed, I would not confront the cold bowl of soup until my sophomore year of college. I was at the swanky restaurant Jonathan at Gratz Park, and the first course was a summery strawberry gazpacho with basil and mint. At such a clean, correct establishment, I was convinced that this little bowl of bright, fragrant liquid was the food of high society, the elixir of kings and magistrates in far-off lands. But I was quite wrong.
What I did not know was that gazpacho has long been a food for the poor. And that it began as a cold bread soup, made with garlic, almonds, olive oil, and grapes. Not surprising, considering Columbus would not bring over tomatoes from the New World until sometime after 1492. What I’ve come to learn about gazpacho is that its most consistent feature is its variation. No two gazpachos are alike. They’re subject to the whim and whimsy of the cook, and more importantly, the ingredients she has on hand. In other words, you can’t mess this up.
The version I made used tomatoes of all color and shape, green bell pepper, deeply charred poblano peppers, a jalapeno, balsamic vinegar, a glug of olive oil and a handful of fresh herbs.
Here’s how you make it:
Charred Poblano Gazpacho
2 1/2 lbs fresh tomatoes
1/2 large red onion
1 large cucumber
4 cloves garlic
green bell pepper
2 poblano peppers
1/2 bunch of parsley
1/2 cup olive oil
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper, to taste
To get started, we’ll char the poblano peppers. If you have a gas burner, awesome. Fire it up and let the peppers sizzle, pop, and char over the open flame. It might feel odd to intentionally burn something in your kitchen, but it might be your only chance to do so and feel proud of it. If you don’t have a gas burner, heat an ungreased cast-iron pan on the stove and wait until it’s screaming hot. Place the peppers in the pan and turn occasionally. Once fully charred, wrap the peppers in foil to steam. After 5 minutes, chop off the tops of the peppers and pull out the seeds. Now we’re ready to roll.
To make this, you’ll need a blender or food processor. Traditionally, it would have been made with a mortar and pestle. While that sounds romantic and artisanal, it’s also highly impractical and probably very annoying. There are a couple ways you can put this recipe together. In the picture at the top of the page, I blended the first four ingredients, which yielded a soft pink liquid. I then blended the rest separately for a deep green garnish. The tomato puree was then accented with the pepper-herb puree. This was done for aesthetics only, and it’s not at all necessary. To make things easier, you can throw everything into your blender and give it a spin.
Once smooth, taste it. Should it be sweeter? If so, add a little sugar. Is it not quite zippy enough for you? Add a few more drops of vinegar. Does it seem generally lackluster? Add a little salt. When you’re satisfied, transfer it to a large bowl and let it cool completely. It’s best served incredibly cold. And though this is all about freshness, I will say that gazpacho is best on the second or third day, as the flavors of the vegetables and herbs begin to meld.
As for serving, you’ve got plenty of options. It’s great with white wine or a crisp lager. You can also elevate it with a healthy spoonful of jumbo lump crab or a few large pickled shrimp.