Wednesday, June 28, 2006

andalusian gazpacho: summer comfort food III

I hosted a dozen high school students from Madrid one summer, ostensibly to teach them conversational English. They were surly, spoiled, and had less desire to learn than to be on vacation. Instead of enjoying life by the sea, they felt cheated not to live in New York City. Sammy, the group’s college-age chaperone, particularly disliked working with a woman. But he loved U2, and the students would liven up when I offered to parse Bono’s lyrics with them, at the end of a morning of classwork. We chipped away at one song per morning.

The students took away great experiences with their host families and an understanding of the lyrics of U2. I took away a firm conviction never to try that again, and a recipe for Andalusian Gazpacho.

I thought I loved gazpacho, before. I’d tasted a dozen different recipes. Sammy, determined to make an authentic Spanish gazpacho in quantity for an end-of-summer party, went shopping with me at the vegetable market.

“How many cucumbers, Sammy? How many onions?” I asked. The horror on his face!

“What are you talking about? Gazpacho has no onions, no cucumbers! You are talking about Mexican gazpacho. I will show you how to make real gazpacho.”

“Then what do you put in it?” I asked.

“Tomatoes. Garlic. Perhaps one quarter of a pepper, but probably not. Bread. Olive oil, vinegar, sugar. Salt and pepper. You have a blender, right?”

Personally, I love it when people get righteously indignant about food preparation. First, it means I don’t have to cook. Second, it means I will likely learn something. Third, whatever I learn will be authentic, and I’m unlikely to forget it.

At home, Sammy threw all the tomatoes into the blender with one clove of garlic and several ice cubes. He tore an entire loaf of French bread into small pieces and dropped them, one at a time, into the whirling mixture, stopping when the tomato soup had enough body to “stand” a little, on the spoon. He “finished” the cold soup with a splash of cider vinegar, a generous spoonful of sugar and a tablespoon of good virgin olive oil. A pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper.

Sammy held out a large spoonful to me. This gazpacho didn’t look like any I’d ever tasted—a puree, it had no chunks of vegetables, no smell of spice, little color. I put the spoon in my mouth and closed my eyes, a connoisseur in an instant.

“Tomato,” I said. “It tastes exactly like the coldest, most delicious tomato I’ve ever eaten. Where does the bread go?”

“It gives itself up for the tomato,” Sammy said. “This is how we make it in Spain. We live on this soup.” We spoke of Pedro Amaldovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, laughing together that the heroine had been drugged by lacing her pitcher of gazpacho with a sedative. After five weeks of raised hackles, all it took to laugh was a recipe and a memory of a funny Spanish movie.

U2 gave Sammy a little respect for me, and gazpacho gave me a little respect for Sammy. I only wish we had begun the summer with soup instead of ending it that way.

Later I saw a nearly identical recipe titled Andalusian Gazpacho, made from roasted tomatoes instead of fresh, but it described the part of Spain where Gazpacho originated, and the simple tomato and bread soup served there. Make it by the pitcher, and serve it ice cold.

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