Photo by Maggie Schmitt
Two o'clock in the afternoon, whitewash ablaze in the midday sun. There is no sound but the shrieking of cicadas from a cypress tree. No movement. A trance of stillness has fallen over every living thing. Withdraw to the shade of a grapevine or a fig; seek the consoling gurgle of a tiny fountain. And eat gazpacho.
Much of the aesthetic heritage of Andalusia has to do with lending grace to the long hours of ruthless sun. Leafy courtyards, narrow whitewashed alleys, tiles of greens and blues: From Kandahar to Cadiz stretches a common culture of dealing with heat and dust. Poetry, architecture, and religious images all prize interior sanctuaries and the sound of running water, all await the fragrant clemency of night.
But to my knowledge, in that whole great swath of sun-baked earth, there is no gastronomic solution so perfect as gazpacho, humble invention of this westernmost outpost of the Islamic world. Cold and bright, tasting of summer itself, gazpacho is what one craves even when all other foods stick in the throat.
There are partisans for the inclusion of garlic, pimentón, or cumin--each family or region has its preference in this regard.
Do not be deceived by imposters! I have noticed that outside of Spain all manner of slop--tomato juice with bits of vegetable--is passed off as "gazpacho," and little wonder many friends arrive here thinking they don't like it. Let me set the record straight.
Gazpacho andaluz is a completely liquid blend of very ripe tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, onion, olive oil, and bread, with salt and usually a few drops of vinegar. There are partisans for the inclusion of garlic, pimentón, or cumin--each family or region has its preference in this regard. It can be served in a glass over ice, or in a bowl with some chopped vegetables as garnish. That's it. Lo demás son tonterías.
The exact proportions depend on personal taste and the quality of the ingredients, but here's one version to tinker with. It is very important that the vegetables be good, especially the tomatoes, otherwise the whole thing is kind of dreary and pointless.
• 6 very ripe (some prefer slightly overripe) large tomatoes • 1 small cucumber (peeled and seeded)
• ½ a large sweet onion • 1 green pepper (the elongated Italian kind, not a bell pepper)
• 1 butt (about 5 inches) of stale french bread doused with ice water • A stiff shot of good olive oil
• A couple of ice cubes
Chop all the vegetables into large chunks and put them in a blender with the bread (after squeezing any extra water out of it) oil and ice. Blend until liquid; don't let it foam. Pass the liquid through a foodmill or a strainer to strain out the skins and seeds.
Add salt to taste and a few drops of vinegar (any kind will do, I use balsamic). Check the balance of vegetables; you may want more of one or another, if so add it. Let the mix sit in the fridge, ideally for a few hours, before serving.
Gazpacho is easy to make in large quantities and it stays good (gets better, in fact) for a couple of days. It may separate, just stir it and it will recover its consistency.
If you serve gazpacho as a first course, let me recommend little fried fish as a second course. The combination is one of those classics which can't really be improved.