Smoky Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

Saturday, September 26, 2015

It's the first week of fall, making it the perfect time for....gazpacho? Yes, actually! Although we usually think of the chilled tomato soup as a summer dish, it's perfect for the abundance of ripe tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers still in season right now. Plus, depending on where you live, early September isn't exactly hot soup weather quite yet. Gazpacho was one of my favorite veggie based meals to make this summer when I wanted an alternative to salad or roasted veggies. That says a lot, because I don't even like tomato soup (just pass over the grilled cheese sandwich, please.) Before I learned how to make gazpacho on my own, my only frame of reference was a farmer's market sample that tasted like pureed pico de gallo. I was confused as to what the appeal of drinking salsa could be. Gazpacho remained something I had no interest in eating for years after that, all because I didn't understand what a good gazpacho should taste like. It's a shame when that happens and we miss out on great food experiences. Fast forward to this summer, when I found myself with more tomatoes than I knew what to do with. I mean a LOT of tomatoes. Fifteen to twenty pounds at a time, to be precise.

My mom and dad have been getting produce from a local farm share and the owner sent them home week after week with some of the most beautiful ripened heirlooms I'd ever seen. I can't say what they paid for them, but it was pennies. If you've never smelled a kitchen full of ripe farm fresh tomatoes, it's intense. The sweet earthiness will make you realize how bland grocery store tomatoes really are. There was no way I was going to let these babies go to waste so I did my research and learned how to prep tomatoes for canning and freezing. It's a ton of work to blanch, shock, peel & core all those tomatoes. However, the trade off is having a supply for the off season that will surpass just about anything commercially canned.

I opted to freeze this particular batch - a little less work than boiling mason jars, although I did end up canning some of the later batches. I've become a huge fan of freezer safe plastic deli containers lately. Most of the tomatoes were simply peeled and quartered, but I slow roasted big batches of cherry tomatoes and froze those whole, as well as pureed some roasted plum tomatoes. I'm admittedly a nerd about this stuff but it gave me immense pleasure to begin stocking our freezer up for the coming fall and winter months. Who knew all this Suzy Homemaker stuff could be so much fun?

Searching for "tomato recipes" in the middle of the summer pointed me straight into the direction of gazpacho, so I decided it was time to research. I learned that gazpacho was originally a stale bread and olive oil based soup thought to be brought to Spain by the Moors. The Andalusia region of Spain is attributed to what we now think of as a classic tomato based gazpacho. Authentic versions are typically thickened with bread and finished with sherry vinegar and olive oil. That might not sound like a big deal, but it's those finishing touches that transform what are essentially garden salad ingredients into something that's more than the sum of its parts. Which totally explains why the soup I tried at the farmer's market tasted like nothing more than blended salsa. Well, once I figured out that gazpacho was more than a few tomatoes thrown into a blender with cucumbers, I was curious enough to try it out on my own. I opted for an authentic Andalusian version and used Serious Eats' recipe and techniques as my guide. I sprung for some good olive oil and sherry vinegar but otherwise used what I had, subbing milder shallots for the onions, adding in radishes for some heat, and making use of frozen bread ends as my thickener.

The results blew me away. The gazpacho was creamy, cool, and refreshing and it tasted like the best parts of summer. It was fresh, flavorful and rich - nothing like salsa or hot tomato soup for that matter. Of course it helped that I was working with fantastic tomatoes, and I'd stress that you do the same. If you can't get your hands on home grown or farm fresh tomatoes, look for organic heirloom tomatoes in the store. Grab a few that feel heavy for their weight. The ideal tomatoes are juicy and just on the verge of being too ripe, with smooth skin and no visible spoilage (they don't stay fresh as long as regular tomatoes, for good reason.) In comparison to the cookie cutter pale orange tomatoes grocery stores are known for, heirlooms may seem damn near ugly. But it's those imperfections and irregularities that are beautiful to me, and an indication that they will deliver on true tomato flavor.

I was so inspired by the beauty of gazpacho that I played around with my plating a bit more than I usually do. The soup is really smooth and creamy, so to add contrast I garnished with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and a few thin radish slices. Tender fresh mint leaves, olive oil and homemade basil oil were the finishing touches.

I tried a few different variations of this recipe after that, including a spicy watermelon gazpacho that was perfect with grilled shrimp. My favorite gazpacho was one that I developed while on Whole 30. With bread out of my diet, I thought to use toasted almonds instead. Besides almonds being a staple in Spanish cooking, they work well to add body to soups and the nuttiness added more flavor than bread really does. You'll need a good blender for a smooth puree, otherwise you might want to try a few thick spoonfuls of almond butter instead. I also wanted to incorporate a smoky component to this gazpacho, to go with grilled fish that day. I added smoked sun-dried tomatoes which further helped to thicken the soup. The smokiness added a subtle depth of flavor that was more complex tasting than a traditional gazpacho recipe, but just as easy to make!

Gazpacho can make a satisfying entree for lunch and it's great as a starter or side for dinner. I've seen some cool dinner party spreads with gazpacho shooters as passed hor'dourves. To make it a main course I'd probably add a few pieces of shrimp, thick cut smoky bacon or even lump crab. The night I made this batch of gazpacho, I served it alongside grilled mahi mahi, Spanish "Escabeche" style, with a medley of sherry pickled onions, peppers, olives and capers. It really inspired me to explore that flavor profile further. At any rate, I'm planning to work on a green gazpacho soon and maybe some kind of roasted version for the fall. You can say I'm officially a fan of gazpacho now... but all bets are still off on hot tomato soup!

Smoky Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

3 to 4 lbs ripe heirloom tomatoes, cored
1/2 lb seedless cucumber
1 large bell pepper, cored
Small red onion
5 radishes, tops trimmed
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 c. fresh Italian parsley
3 oz. smoked sundried tomatoes
1/2 c. toasted almonds
Juice of 1 lemon
3 to 4 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/2 to 1 c. good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tsp kosher salt, or as needed
Cracked black pepper, to taste
Smoked sea salt, to finish

Servings: Makes approx. 3 quarts
Prep Time: 1 hour, plus time to chill
Cook Time: n/a
Suggested Equipment: High powered blender

Prep is pretty easy because you don't need to be precise at all with chopping up the veggies. The first step is salting them, which seasons everything and begins to draw out the flavors. Roughly chop the cucumber, onion, bell pepper, radishes, parsley and garlic. Season liberally with kosher salt and toss together in a large bowl. Oh, I usually specify whether to use a green bell pepper or red/yellow/orange, but in this case use what you have. Green peppers will give a fresher, grassier flavor (which I love in gazpacho) and the other colors will add more sweetness.

Next, add the cored tomatoes, also roughly chopped. Salt those too. Mine were peeled because they were tomatoes I'd already processed but it's up to you whether or not to take that step. A good blender is going to pulverize the skins so as long as your tomatoes were pesticide free, I wouldn't worry about it. (Same goes for the cucumber by the way.) Good, ripe tomatoes will have a ton of juice which is exactly what's needed. Let everything hang out for at least thirty minutes but if you have more time that's great. The salt will pull out all of the juices from the tomatoes and other veggies, so you'll end up with something that looks like this.

Here's where things can get a little messy. Most blenders won't fit everything in one shot so you'll probably need to work in at least two batches. Split the almonds and sun dried tomatoes between batches so everything is evenly distributed. Start out on low speed, increasing to high speed for a minute or two until you have a homogenous mixture. Check to make sure that the almonds were completely blended. Transfer the puree to an empty bowl and do the same for the rest of the salted vegetables.

Add the sherry vinegar and juice of a lemon to the gazpacho (I also split this between batches) and double check to taste for salt, adding cracked black pepper to taste. To finish, you'll need to stream the olive oil in while the blender is running on medium to low speed. This helps create a strong emulsion, which transforms the gazpacho into a silky smooth texture. Olive oil varies in strength and flavor so the amount needed is more to taste. Spanish olive oils are great for obvious reasons, but use one that suits your tastes. 

You can see the difference in the gazpacho in the blender that was finished with olive oil versus the one that had only been pureed. I transfer all of the finished gazpacho batches back to one big bowl to do a final taste test, and then I ladle it into containers for storage. Gazpacho freezes really well, so I'll typically keep a quart in the fridge to eat that day and freeze two quarts to have on hand for another time. You'll want to allow at least an hour to chill or even overnight. Just give it a stir before serving.

Garnishes are a nice way to add some textural contrast back to the soup. The simplest thing to do is spoon some finely diced tomato and cucumber into the bowl and drizzle it with olive oil. I also added a pinch of smoked sea salt to drive home the subtle smokiness in the gazpacho. 

Herbs can also work to garnish a bowl of gazpacho; I'm partial to mint or basil. Cilantro can push you towards that salsa flavor profile which I wanted to avoid, but that said it's a combination that works if it suits you! Chives are also an option, as utilized in the Serious Eats' gazpacho recipe.

At its best I think gazpacho is a simple soup that elegantly transforms fresh, seasonal produce. As somebody who is used to relying on a lot of spices and aromatics, this was truly a lesson in restraint for me this summer but it served me well. I'm really glad I took the time to try something that I assumed I wouldn't like, and I hope you have fun making a gazpacho of your own!

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