Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A cold day in August

Spicy gazpacho, tuna burgers, iced summer fruits souffle, and my favorite vinho verde = nearly perfect August fare. Too bad by dinnertime it was 60 degrees, drizzly-damp, and decidedly April-like.

I'd been planning a cool summertime meal for a while and of course narrowed in on a 1952 recipe for gazpacho from The West Coast Cook Book by Helen Evans Brown. She writes that "there is no better way to start a meal on a broiling summer day," and I can add that it also does just fine on a cold summer day.

Gazpacho, I have learned, originated in Andalusia, a likely adaption of the Spanish Moors' ajo blanco, a soup of garlic, olive oil, bread, vinegar, almonds, and salt (sounds tasty, doesn't it?). Today ajo blanco is a signature dish of Malaga and, intriguingly, features grapes. Traditionally, gazpacho is a "liquid salad" of tomatoes, bell peppers, olive oil, vinegar, cucumber, garlic, and week-old bread, but there are so many possibilities for successful improvisation.

The provenance of Ms. Brown's "West Coast gazpacho" is, so she says, both Spanish and Latin American. Indeed, gazpacho is an early example of fusion food, bringing together the staples of the Mediterranean diet -- olive oil, garlic, crusty breads, and salt -- with the singular fruits of the Americas: tomatoes and bell pepper, carried home by ransacking conquistadores (fusion food at the end of a sword).

I find it amusing that, as early as 1952 West Coast gazpacho forgoes bread ("we skip that out here," notes Ms. Brown). Might she be the first Zone dieter?

I followed the recipe almost to the letter, but "skipped out" on peeling my tomatoes because they were simply so ripe and thin-skinned that the pulp and juice fairly burst into my lap. I substituted half of the red tomatoes for sweet yellow ones, and the green pepper for yellow, too. To temper the sweetness I upped the spice: instead of a "dash of tabasco or 1 small hot red pepper" I squirted in an ample pile of harissa, a chili paste or sauce of North Africa, thereby reintroducing Spain's Islamic past.

The soup went over a treat with my guests, quickly wiping away memories of clammy wet subway rides. My friend Shane noted that the gazpacho avoided the all-too-common problem of tasting like "watered-down salsa," as it is at the restaurant where he works (which for obvious reasons shall remain nameless). Many have their own cherished gazpacho recipe -- I suggest sticking with yours but experimenting with harissa. The rich and complicated spice adds a fullness of flavor where simple hot sauce can seem flat and/or overpowering.

Red & Yellow Gazpacho, by way of Andalusia, Latin America, California, North Africa, and a Brooklyn farmers' market

1 clove garlic, minced
2 pounds tomatoes (mixed varieties for extra fun!), cored and minced
1 cucumber, seedless if you care
1/2 cup minced yellow pepper
1/2 cup minced white onion
1 and 1/2 cup tomato juice (free of added sugar or salt)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 to 3 tbsp. vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
Salt & pepper
1-2 tbsp. harissa paste

Toss together, chill, and serve to about 4 to 6 of your dearest dears.

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