June 27, 2012

Hot and Cold

When I was young, it was one of the things that I most looked forward to. Slurping the bottom of the bowl with the ice cubes clanging against my spoon, their frozen bodies making the last drops of the thick, tomato-y broth watery and refreshing and ice cold. The salty croutons were always the first to go; next the garnish. We sipped and licked and downed spoonfuls of this refreshing, summer treat. We drained the last drops from the pitcher of the blender and bemoaned when there was finally, at last, after two bowls full at least, no more. We scraped up the vegetable scraps and we put our dishes in the sink and we all, I think, each of us in our own way, left the table with a feeling of satisfaction and refreshment.

These were the warm nights on which my mother made us gazpacho soup. I looked forward to them for weeks sometimes. I would request it again and again, waiting at long last to hear the whirl of the blender, to see the just-washed tomatoes and cucumbers and scallions and green peppers lining the table, to wait for that first crunch of crouton against the smooth silk of the cold soup, to feel that bite of fresh pepper crash between my teeth, to taste the lick of the olive oil, and to hear the crush of the ice cube beneath my spoon.

It’s recipes like this that make cooking worthwhile—they are inherently ceremonial; they inherently transport. Tonight, alone in my kitchen, without the buzz of mosquitos from a NY summer, or the swelter of our humid Washington Heights apartment, or the hum of cars below my window, I made it again, for the first time this year. I think I will be playing this one on repeat until the fog rolls in thickly for the later summer months and we settle into that particular type of coldness that descends here, in San Francisco, all the way through August.

I was alone tonight, and as I made this I missed my family. Perhaps it had to do with having just finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, in which family, in its many pitfalls and myriad joys, features prominently. In the final pages, she sits down to eat with her surrogate family (the in-laws) and hopes that she might, despite her divorce from their son, still be welcome at the table. She finds that she is—though things are different of course, after the wear of many years and the tumult and break of many promises.

I can’t somehow picture my sister at the gazpacho table—not completely. And I suppose it is her that I miss the most. We always joked that she was the eater and I the cook—this was a good arrangement for us in many ways. She used to bribe me with food promises, incite me with pantry items that I couldn’t reach (because I was the littler) in exchange for holding secrets, persuading my parents of something that she absolutely needed, or promising not to tell on her for whatever little insignificant thing she might have done wrong on that particular day.

I always abided.

It is uncharacteristic to think of eating something cold and feeling something warm, but that was how it was for me tonight. I ate this alone. I lit a candle. I tried not to feel so far away, and, in truth, I didn’t. We were all in there really, fighting for the last crouton, slurping the last drops of our near-frozen tomato-y soup, waiting for the heat to break, and spending perhaps a little bit longer than usual at the family table.

Gazpacho Soup with Croutons
Serves 4 (approximately), increase the recipe to account for seconds or thirds (you will need them)

4 large heirloom tomatoes (Brandywine is my favorite)
3 medium cucumbers
1 green bell pepper
6 scallions, dark green tops removed
A handful of Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
Half a rustic loaf of bread (I like Acme's Sweet Batard or Pain au Levain)
Olive oil

A small disclaimer: This recipe, since it lives in my mind, is always an approximation, and it always varies with the produce that one can find in the moment. The beauty of this is that it is very hard to ruin; you can make it in endless variations and still be satisfied with the result. The one main thing that I strongly suggest is that you use tomatoes that are very red (to achieve that vibrant color in the final soup) and that are as tomato-y as you can find. Local, organic, heirloom varieties tend to be the best ones out there, and the closest to the kinds of tomatoes you ate when you were a kid, with no mealy, white, sorry-excuse-for-a-tomato inside in sight. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Wash and lay out all of your produce. Peel 2 of the cucumbers in such a way as to leave half of the skin on (I always make stripes, having watched my mother do this a hundred times), and cut them in quarters. Trim 4 of the scallions of the dark green tops, leaving all of the light green and white parts intact. 

Directly over a blender (so as to not lose any juice), quarter and drop in your tomatoes. Add the cucumbers and the scallions. Add half of a green bell pepper (a little piece of jalapeno is also great here, without the seeds or the vein). Pulse for about 30 seconds, or until everything is incorporated—it does not have to be completely smooth, a bit of texture is nice. Add the handful of parsley and season with salt and pepper. Pulse again. Add a drizzle of olive oil and pulse one more time. 

Taste and adjust the vegetable proportions and seasoning according to your preference—sometimes at this stage I will add more scallion, or more pepper, or even more tomato if I find the soup is not red enough; so much of this depends on the quality of the produce that it is nearly impossible to predict what you will want more of, so just taste as you go. 

When you are satisfied with your soup, place it in the refrigerator (leaving it in the pitcher of the blender) to chill while you make the croutons and prepare the garnish. 

Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Cut the bread into thick 1-2 inch cubes. Lay the bread on the parchment and drizzle heartily with 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil—each cube should be glistening and coated. Sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt and pepper, and toss until thoroughly coated. Bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, turning frequently, until the croutons are golden brown on all sides. 

While the croutons bake, prepare the garnish. Chop a cucumber, 2-3 scallions, the rest of the green pepper, and some more parsley roughly and set it out on a board or a plate for the table. I usually leave each vegetable separate but in close proximity so that you can choose exactly what you would like more of. 

Moments before the croutons are ready to come out of the oven, retrieve the soup from the fridge and pulse it again. Set out your bowls; add 1-2 ice cubes in each. Ladle the gazpacho soup over the ice. To each bowl of soup, add a bit of garnish on top, and finish with a handful of piping-hot croutons. 

Eat immediately.  

1 comment:

  1. Oh your post is so tender, so heartfelt, so intricately written. Your family... The feeling is untranslatable. And now I want Gazpacho