JUL/AUG 2001

Chilled Gazpacho:

Summertime Seduction

Brandywine. Early Girl. Garden Peach.

Jubilee. Sun Gold. Sweetie.

Itís as if tomato plants were our lovers, given nicknames to woo them. In many backyard gardens this time of year, people are courting their tomatoes, watching them grow from three-leaf seedlings too small to ever need the tall metal cages that surround them, to heavy bushes with ripe fruit dangling, warm and ready to eat.

When itís tomato time, itís also time for one of my favorite summer dishes: gazpacho. As a kid, I wouldnít have been eager to eat gazpacho, a kind of chilled liquid salad with chunks of veggies in a tomato-based puree. Something about soup served cold wouldíve seemed to upset the balance of things, like a man in a dress, or my brother being nice to me. It just wasnít done.

But I didnít grow up in southern Spain, where gazpacho originated as a peasant dish that offered a quick, cool meal in a hot climate. The version we see in restaurants here is closest to the Sevillian style, with tomato, green pepper, and cucumber. But the only required ingredients for gazpacho in the Andalucia region are garlic, bread, olive oil, salt, water, and vinegar. From there, the Spanish variations include a white gazpacho that adds almonds and fruit, a green gazpacho heavy on the herbs, and other red tomato versions served with salt cod, ham, hard-boiled eggs, or cumin crushed with mint.

While we usually eat it from a bowl with a spoon, it can also be drunk from a glass like tomato juice. In Pedro Almodovarís 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the lead character, Pepa, is contemplating suicide (or murder), so she concocts a blender full of drinkable gazpacho spiked with a handful of downers. Coming to her senses, she deposits the blender in the refrigerator, but others canít resist the lure. "Ah, gazpacho!" says one girl who steals a swig and then takes a long nap on Pepaís patio, where she proceeds to have sexy dreams. Almodovar too seemed to realize thereís something sensual about tomatoes.

While gazpacho is an easy dish to prepare yourself (recipes abound on the Web), I can be almost as lazy as a doped-up sweetheart in the Mediterranean sunshine, so I began looking for restaurants where I could get a bowl of tasty, chilled gazpacho served to me.

I tried five local preparations, all of them similar in veggie ingredients, but with enough variation to suit different dispositions. Each began with a puree of vegetables, to which was then added more chopped vegetables for a combined smooth and crunchy texture. None of the recipes appeared to use bread in the puree, but most used hot sauce or hot peppers to give the broth a little kick. Nowhere did I read that traditional gazpacho is spicy, so Iím not sure if this comes from an American tendency to add hot sauce to everything or a misperception that gazpacho is of Mexican origins and therefore supposed to be spicy.

Gazpacho-to-go is available from the Produce Station (1629 South State) at $3.29 for 16 ounces. Made with a watery broth and finely chopped vegetables, you could almost drink it. It has a lightly spicy kick and isnít too oily, but the vinegar is a little strong. This version sticks mostly to the basicsóroma tomatoes, green bell pepper, white onion, cucumber, shallots, red wine vinegar, and olive oilóbut the ingredients also include V-8, hot sauce, and Worcestershire. I liked this preparation, and Iíd get it again for a summer lunch or appetizer.

Another place with easy gazpacho take-out is Barry Bagelís (Jackson & Stadium in Westgate), where a sign on the door announces, "Itís Back! Gazpacho Soup Made Fresh Daily From Scratch." I brought home a large bowl in a Styrofoam container (oh well) for $2.49. As soon as I lifted the lid, I knew there was a problem. Celery. I could smell it in the cold broth. You might not think thatís possible, but thereís no love lost between celery and me, and I know its foul presence instantly. I can detect the smallest celery seed in coleslaw, and I can deftly remove a whole cup of chopped celery from chicken salad without even noticing Iím doing it. But even if I liked it, celery doesnít belong in gazpacho, so Barryís version was automatically suspect. It was the thickest of the soups I tried, with large pieces of veggies, but there were no herbs or garlic to speak of, so it came off rather flat. I wouldnít recommend it unless youíre on that side of town and need a fresh veggies re-charge for lunch (and donít mind celeric adulteration).

When you buy the gazpacho at the Prickly Pear (328 South Main), youíre really buying the downtown eating scene, since a modest serving in margarita stemware costs $4.95. But you get a basket of free salty chips and salsa, and you can sit on the Main Street sidewalk or in the backyard patio in the shade. Their gazpacho was easily the most beautiful serving I tried, with a colorful selection of diced veggies (zucchini and yellow squash, red and green pepper, red onion) tossed on top of the cilantro-laced soup, along with fried tortilla strips and chives sticking up like flags. But the broth was thin and oily with a mushy tomato puree, and the only significant flavor came from the raw onion. It was also awkward to mix together and eat out of the tall glass, with so many loose items piled on top.

While gazpacho begs to be eaten outdoors in the sun, a delicious version can be enjoyed in the dark, seamy ambiance of the Del-Rio (122 West Washington). Served in a big ceramic bowl for $2.50, it has a rich red color, big chunks of cukes, green pepper, tomato, and onion, and a strong herbal finish from barely-chopped parsley. To me, the broth was the perfect thickness and had a deep flavor, like the ingredients had had more time to mix with each other. You can adjust the spiciness with two choices of bottled hot sauce. Another item I like on the Delís menu is the hard boiled egg, which goes great with the gazpacho (and makes it even more authentically Spanish).

Finally, I also enjoyed the gazpacho at Caseyís Tavern (304 Depot), although it is a small serving in a coffee mug for $2.95. The broth is thin, but it tastes like itís been flavored with salad dressingónot a classic style, but yummy. You can order it with sour cream and a few large croutons that quickly soften in the soup, allowing some sense of the traditional bread-based preparation.

I should note that none of these kitchens could yet take advantage of locally grown tomatoes, so all these versions should only improve as summer lingers and the Early Girls and Brandywines coyly blush and offer up their warm flesh for eating. I better get out to my garden and coo at them.

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