Eat the Summer Gazpacho


On days like today, and yesterday, and the day before, and tomorrow, when the streets of New York City seem only a degree or two from the melting point of steel beams, it makes sense to eat fresh, cold vegetables. Salads are an easy recommendation. (How about a chayote som tam? Or a broccoli stalk carpaccio? Or one of these?) Another is gazpacho, the Spanish soup, traditionally served cold, which has many many variations, but often includes tomato, cucumber, garlic, and bread. The gazpacho recipe I’ve settled on, which is not authentic partly because my soup actually exists and the concept of authenticity in cuisine is a figment of white people’s imaginations, does, unfortunately, require the use of an oven. I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes you have to suffer for your soup.

Gazpacho is a soup from the Iberian peninsula, a melding of Spanish, Portuguese, Roman, Moorish, and Arab flavors and techniques. There are dozens of different recipes; most regions in Spain and Portugal have their own special versions, and then there are weirdo recipes like ajoblanco, sometimes referred to as white gazpacho, which is made with green grapes and almonds.

What never changes is that gazpacho is always a soup that is heavily reliant on vegetables, garlic, and olive oil, and that is always served cold. Because there are so many variations, it frees us up to not really care about tradition and just take those basic rules and play with them how we wish. You want to use peppers as the base? Sure, why not. Walnuts? Soaked stale sourdough bread? Yeah, try it! My favorite twist is to roast the vegetables first.

I have no qualms with raw fruits and vegetables, even some that normally are cooked, like summer squash and winter root vegetables. But tomatoes I generally prefer cooked. In some salads and sandwiches the acidic tang of a raw tomato is essential, but for soups, even cold soups, I think a cooked tomato has advantages over raw. Cooked over very high heat, broiled or grilled or just roasted at a high temperature, the skins of tomatoes char, adding bitterness; the sugars caramelize and deepen, bringing out the sweetness; and cooked tomatoes are more complex than raw tomatoes (if less bold), which is what I want in a gazpacho.

As for types of tomatoes, my favorites for gazpacho are the cherry and grape tomatoes. For one thing, we’re still a bit early for heirlooms. For another, the small tomatoes are a bit less precious. I always feel guilty cooking an heirloom tomato; they’re so beautiful and so expensive and so short-lived that it feels like the only way to eat them is raw. But cherry and grape tomatoes are well into their season, grow abundantly, and are pretty inexpensive, so you won’t be shaming the farmer by roasting and blending them with a bunch of other stuff.

The other key components of this gazpacho are cucumbers, vinegar, and fat. Because you’re roasting the tomatoes, you have to be careful to emphasize all three of these, or else the gazpacho will taste like cold tomato sauce. The cucumbers in particular are really important; you want almost as much cucumber as tomato. Any kind of cucumber will work, though I’d encourage you to try the weirder varieties that are only available during the summer. What’s the point of buying an English cucumber when you can get those in the middle of February? So try small Persian cucumbers, or, my favorite, the oblong, pale yellow lemon cucumbers. (Lemon cucumbers are so named because they look like, rather than taste like, lemons. They actually taste more melon-y than most cucumbers, a bit sweeter, and with a very thin skin. The thin skin is a benefit here, because we’ll be pureeing the cucumber and don’t need excess flecks of tough green cucumber skin floating around.)

As for vinegar, sherry is the most traditional; it has a certain depth and nuttiness that works really well with the flavors in gazpacho. But red wine vinegar works just as well, as does white wine or champagne vinegar. It won’t be the same, but it will be good, which is really all we care about. Don’t skimp here: this is a perfect place to use homemade red wine vinegar, if you have it, or some expensive store-bought stuff. As with a lot of Mediterranean recipes, the ingredients are so simple and limited in number that their quality matters a great deal.

The last key element of a gazpacho is fat. This is a dish made almost entirely of vegetables, and a major mistake a lot of people make is not including enough fat. (Without fat, gazpacho tastes like V8.) In Spain and Portugal, the fat almost invariably comes from olive oil and possibly nuts (almonds being the most common). But there are plenty of other options. My favorites are avocado and dairy, specifically Greek yogurt and its derivatives. If you feel like it, avocado sorbet (this is a good recipe) is a very fancy and delicious way to get cold fat into the dish. But I am very lazy, and avocado sorbet is kind of a pain to make, so I usually use Greek yogurt or, better yet, labneh.

So! Those are the key ingredients for one very particular gazpacho. Here’s how to make it.

Shopping list: Cherry or grape tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, olive oil, garlic (or garlic scapes), scallions, serrano chile peppers, vinegar (sherry, red wine, white wine, or champagne), Greek yogurt, sourdough bread, parsley, cilantro, almonds

The Day Before

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. In a glass baking container (like Pyrex), toss in a pound of tomatoes (you can use any color or shape), eight cloves of smashed garlic or three chopped garlic scapes, a few scallions chopped into one-inch lengths, and a quarter cup of olive oil. Toss and place in the oven for about thirty minutes until garlic is soft. Take it out of the oven.

Chop half a pound of cucumbers roughly. Chop one or two serranos finely. Throw these into a food processor along with the contents (including liquid! Do not waste the liquid!) from the baking container and a quarter cup of vinegar. Blend thoroughly. Blend it a little more. Keep blending. Okay, look good? Blend it some more. Taste and add whatever’s needed — a lot of salt, a little black pepper, and maybe some more vinegar or hot sauce or olive oil or even a touch of sugar.

When it tastes good, place in fridge overnight.

In your sink, place cheesecloth over a strainer and dump in a whole container of Greek yogurt. Of the mass-market ones, use Fage. God help you if I find Chobani in your kitchen. Let it sit for an hour or two until most of the water has strained out, then place in a container and put into the fridge as well.

The Day Of Eating

Take one lemon cucumber and chop it carefully into cubes, about a centimeter on each side. Finely chop a bunch of fresh parsley and cilantro. Chop almonds. Toast a few slices of sourdough.

Spoon the chilled soup into bowls. Place a scoop of the yogurt, which is now called labneh, in the middle. Scatter the chopped raw cucumber, herbs, and almonds all around the scoop of labneh. Drizzle just a touch more olive oil over the top. Eat with toasted bread.

This is not a hard recipe, nor does it require any expensive ingredients, but it is sort of elaborate and showy. Doing it over two days is essential; for one thing, you need the soup to chill completely, but also, the food processor will introduce a bit of foam that you want to subside. (Another way to avoid the foam would be to use a mortar and pestle but, like, no thank you to that kind of effort on a hot summer’s day.) It is also delicious, refreshing, and, because there are like eight kinds of fat in it, filling, which not all gazpachos are. And, after you’ve done the hard work the day before, it’s incredibly easy to make. You just put it together, like making a salad from a salad bar. It’s worth turning on your oven, even in what is so far the hottest global summer on record, I promise.

Photo by cyclonebill