Photo by Alagu M/Flickr CCi
I've never been to Pensacola, and I can't say that Florida has ever really resided high on my list of culinary or cultural heroes. But of late I've had it on my mind since we put together a special Florida-based menu for a party the Roadhouse did last month. Alex and I put together a whole menu of Florida food for the event...which included the Gazpachi Salad.
Wait, you've never heard of it? Not shocking. Granted I've never been to Pensacola and there are zillions of people I haven't talked to, but the only one so far who speaks with authority on the issue has been Chef Jim Shirley . Jim owns a trio of good restaurants down in the coastal town Pensacola, and I heard him speak at a Southern Foodways Symposium a few years ago that focused on the foods of the Gulf, one of which was this Gazpachi Salad. In honesty, it's one of those foods I didn't really pay a huge amount of attention to at the time, but when I got to thinking about a Florida menu, gazpachi came pretty quickly back to mind. And now that I've been playing with it at home regularly for the last few weeks, I have even more interest in it.
So...never been to Pensacola. Jim Shirley called it a "small drinking town with a fishing problem." Can't say it made me that eager to go, but it did stick with me. It is said to have some of the whitest sand beaches in the world, which does raise my interest level higher. When I think Florida I usually call up images of Miami, Cuban comities, big hotels full of tourists, maybe Orlando and Disney World. But if you look at the map, you'll see that Pensacola is actually much closer to Mobile than Miami, right in there with all that Gulf Coast cultural and historical stuff that draws on French, Spanish and English, along with Native American, Caribbean and African influences. The area's likely Native American roots are with the Muskhogen tribe stock that probably spoke a dialect close to Choctaw.
Anyways, first thing Jim Shirley said of Pensacola the other day when we talked on the phone was, "First European settlement in North America!" 2009 happened to mark the 450th anniversary of Pensacola being settled by the Spanish, the first North American spot in which that happened. Puts it at 1559 if you're math skills are weak in the waning weeks of summer.
So let me finally get down to the dish. Basically it's a saladified (not solidified) version of gazpacho. To quote Chef Jim Shirley, it's clearly "a salad that goes back to the Spanish roots of Pensacola." It's not very hard to see how the cold Spanish vegetable soup could have morphed into this salad. As Shirley said, "If you stick hardtack in your gazpacho, what you get evolves into gazpachi salad."
Like so many of the foods I like, gazpachi salad is totally dependent on the quality of what goes into it. Made with out-of-season, not-very-good-vegetables, and some so-so olive oil and vinegar and...it wouldn't be anything I'd really want to eat. But right now while the tomatoes are at the height of their flavor around here it really is darned good.
Turns out to that gazpachi has some long-standing connections to the American culinary past that go beyond Pensacola. Mary Randolph in her very historically important 1824 cookbook, Virginia Housewife , has a recipe for "Gaspacha--Spanish," about which she writes, "Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a salad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skin taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkled with pepper, salt and chopped onion do this until the bowl is full, stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard and oil, and pour over it; make it two hours before it is eaten." (The 'tomatas' are her spelling, not mine. Not sure if she said "tomaytoes" or "tomahtoes," but given the English influence on Virginia of that era we'll assume the latter.)
First, go to the farmer's market, or to your garden, and get a couple really good tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, a little onion.
Get some really good olive oil and vinegar. I've been using the Chilean chardonnay vinegar, but sherry vinegar would be good too and certainly true to the Iberian origins of the dish. Any olive oil you're into will be good. I've been sticking mostly with Spanish since the dish is of Spanish origin and we've got the Fiesta de Espana running at the Deli. Try the Abbaye de Quielles from Catalunya if you like a slightly fruity, more appley oil; Mariano's oil if you want one that's more mid range--touch of pepper, still smooth on the palate; or the Canena (se below) or GriÃ±on which are bigger and more peppery.
To make the salad you need do need hardtack--a biscuit made from flour, water, and salt that was made to last for months on board ships. Name comes from the English term "tack" referring to food. It was a very big part of Army rations during the Civil War. Big factories up north baked and shipped it out to the troops fighting further to the south. Apparently and not surprisingly the longer it took to arrive, the less appealing the dry "bread" got. Came to be called "tooth dullers" and "sheet iron crackers."
As mentioned in the bacon book , it was common practice to cook up, softened in water, and then crumbled hard tack with bacon fat, a dish that was called Skillygalee. You can certainly make your own at home--there are plenty of recipes on line. Alex made some from scratch for the party, but I just bought a box of Vermont Common Crackers from Mail Order since they're very close to the same texture. GH Bent Co in Massachusetts bakes hardtack, and you can get it off their Web site as well.
Anyways, to make the salad, you soak your hardtack (or crackers) in water 'til they get soft. Jim Shirley laughed and said, "The first time I told John T. (fine food writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance) about this salad, he said, 'Wait, you bake this stuff for hours to dry it out and then you take it and soak it in water to soften it?' And I just said, "Yep. You gotta have the hardtack."
Anyways, you take your now-softened bread out of the water and pat it dry on a clean kitchen towel--you don't want excess water in the salad since there'll be so much liquid from the vegetables. Slice the tomatoes, cucumber, and green pepper fairly thinly. (Shirley marinates his cucumbers and onions in vinegar and salt for a day or so before making the salad--I haven't done it that way yet, but the advance work can only make the salad better I'd say.) Dice a bit of onion, or slice up a scallion or two if you'd rather go that route.
At the bottom of a glass bowl (going for looks here), put down a layer of the soaked and dried biscuits. Drizzle on a bit of vinegar and olive oil. Lay down tomatoes, sprinkle with fine sea salt and plenty of just ground black pepper. Add a layer of cucumbers and green peppers, then more salt and pepper, then a bit more olive oil and vinegar. Then spread or spoon on a bit of mayonnaise--you can use more or less of it to your preference. Then repeat the whole thing.
If you're doing this for a big party you can do it in a large glass bowl, which will give everyone a good visual sense of the colors. You can also probably put in any number of different herbs if you want. Garlic if you like (I don't). Don't be skimpy with the salt and pepper--they're an important part of bringing up the flavor of the salad.
When you've done what you're going to do with the salad, stick a heavy plate or bowl on top to weight it down a bit, then cover the whole thing with plastic wrap or foil and stick it in the refrigerator. As per Mrs. Randolph's advice, at least two hours would be good. Shirley says to wait at least a day. Not surprisingly everyone has their own slightly different version, and passions can run high. "One woman told me her father would say he'd shoot her mother if she showed up at the table with a cucumber in her gazpachi!" Jim said. And then he added, "I got the impression she wasn't kidding."
When you're ready to serve, squeeze a bit of fresh lime or lemon over the top if you like. Pass more olive oil, salt and pepper at the table so anyone who likes can dress theirs up a bit more. It really is a nice salad, surprised me with how good it was. Which led me back to a line from what I thin k is one of the great American food books of the 20th century, Cross Creek Cookery by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It's a great portrait of the food of Cross Creek, near Gainesville, at the time it was written, which was 1942.
Granted that's about half way across the state from Pensacola so the book doesn't include anything about Gazpachi salad which, but it is at least from Florida, and more importantly it does have great cultural background and recipes. Although it's been released in readily available paperback I've got a copy of the original book, which came out with really beautiful cloth cover. In it Ms. Rawlings wrote that, "Some of the delicate dishes in the world are of pristine simplicity, but with a subtle flavor past the most elaborate French concoctions." Maybe we'll throw gazpachi salad into that camp.