Gazpacho is the best way to eat a ripe tomato, other than just, well, eating it
Published: July 27, 2011
So I recently celebrated a red-letter day in my annual personal calendar: July 9, 2011, the Feast of First Gazpacho.
Seriously: I feel like summer has only truly arrived when I’m able to fire up the Cuisinart for that first batch of gazpacho. Despite the passing of the summer solstice nearly a month before and harsh, humid, pavement-melting temperatures ever since, summer isn’t really real for me until I finally accumulate enough ripe tomatoes for a righteous round of gazpacho.
It’s such a simple dish, basically just a cold soup of tomatoes and cucumbers whirled up with a few basic accompaniments. But when the flavors are right, the seasonings in balance, the cucumbers crisp-sweet, and (this is the crucial ingredient) the tomatoes absolutely, perfectly, achingly ripe, then simple crosses over into sublime.
I try my darnedest to eat seasonally and locally. To me, deprivation—going without during the off-season—is more than repaid by intensity and revelatory power of flavor during the in-season, however brief. Of all the fruits of the vine, though, tomatoes are the hardest to harbor patience for. They have been my favorite ever since I was a kid— how many tomatoes I could happily consume in a day was both a joke and a marvel in my family—eating them whole, like apples, with just a sprinkle of salt before each bite, leaning waaaay over to keep the juice from dripping onto my shirt. By the time tomato season at last arrives in Baltimore—I’m talking real-deal local tomatoes, not those fake-o “Eastern Shore” tomatoes that are still hard, grainy, orange-y globes—the grown-up me is literally salivating at the thought of that first bite of deeply ripe, acidly sweet tomato.
Even so, I’m willing to wait for the right time to eat tomatoes at their perfectly harvested peak, when they are fully ripe and soft and thus too delicate to be shipped long distances—hence the need to buy them locally, or grow them myself. Which I do, starting different heirloom varieties from seed but also always throwing in a couple of commercially raised Early Girl hybrid tomato plants.
The irony is that I don’t even particularly like Early Girl tomatoes: The fruit is small, with a dry, rather mealy texture, and they don’t pack a lot of flavor. But heck, you want to be harvesting tomatoes in Maryland in early July, here is how you get them—this hybrid lives up to its name (at least the “early” part; I have no idea what flavor the “girl” might contribute). I’ve learned to leave them on the plant to the point of overripeness as a way to maximize the flavor and even impart a little bit of juiciness, but it requires stone-cold discipline not to pluck those first little red-blushed globes from the vine when it’s going on nine months since I last tasted an actual, ripe, real tomato. Maybe there’s something significant about that natal time frame. Maybe it’s just my brain wilting in the heat. But today I’m willing to swear I look forward to each summer’s first tomato with almost the same intensity that I awaited the birth of my children.
Thus the first few tomatoes of the year—Early Girl generally gives it up right around the Fourth of July—are precious, eaten with appropriate awe and appreciation and solemnity. But once tomato season begins to roll in earnest, very quickly rare and remarkable becomes burgeoning and abundant (though never unappreciated). Enter gazpacho: no better way to showcase, and also use up, the superabundance. Two summers ago I worked hard to create the perfect gazpacho recipe, balancing tomato acidity against cucumber coolness, the perfect vinegar tang offsetting an earthy under-note of very good olive oil. Get your hands on some good tomatoes and try the recipe I eventually worked out—summer simplicity at its best—and see if you don’t agree that anticipation is the ultimate appetite stimulant.
6-8 devastatingly ripe medium-sized tomatoes, quartered
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
2-3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil—the best you can get
1 large cucumber, peeled and seeded
(2 tablespoons ice water, optional)
salt to taste
Toss garlic into food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add everything else and pulse several times until coarsely puréed. Taste and correct for seasoning; I suggest starting with the smaller amount of vinegar and adding more if needed—the amount depends heavily on the acidity of the tomatoes. The ice water is to chill things down if you want to serve it right away, but the ’pach really benefits from sitting for an hour in the fridge first, both to get cold and to let the flavors meld.
I eat this straight. For a main dish I’ll top it with Old Bay-dusted lump crab, and maybe some chunky croutons. Just-picked sweet corn on the side, or fried patty-pan squash, make this the ideal Baltimore summer supper.
> Email Michelle Gienow