A Little Bit of Effort

I’m back in New York, where the mercury’s rising. Everywhere are scantily clad people dining al fresco, sipping tall muddled-fruit drinks, and flip-flopping around with cones of gelato which they probably went to the Upper West Side to get. The first really hot days of summer are usually my cue to call it a holiday and hang up my potholders until the weather breaks, and dinners during this period are usually “cooked” at the cutting board.

But this year I can’t take my eyes off a big pot of tomatoes slowly and continually simmering on the stove, because I’m haunted by an amazing gazpacho that I tasted in the south of France.

You may think there are a few things wrong with this picture: gazpacho doesn’t start on the stove, and tomato soup isn’t exactly what you’d imagine as the foodie highlight of a French vacation (though I assure you there were a few others). For the purist, this soup isn’t gazpacho at all: it’s based on a cooked tomato sauce, it contains no bread, no vinegar, and there isn’t a bell pepper in sight. It is a truly amazing cold soup, suffused with flavors of the Mediterranean–rosemary, basil, thyme–and richened by a layer of avocado cream on the bottom of the serving glass. Light on the palate and beautiful to behold, it seemed, as it does now, the perfect evocation of a happy, sun-drenched holiday.

Piero Polloni–a mild-mannered Venetian of formidable culinary talent, and our chef aboard the barge Tango–generously shared his recipe with me. (Check back in the next couple of days for a slideshow of Piero’s magnificent meals.) While his partner, our tour guide Viviana, drove us to the Narbonne train station on our day of departure for Paris, Piero explained, gently, that a good gazpacho could be made much more quickly than this (indicating a sheet of paper covered front and back with handwriting) by blitzing fresh ingredients in the food processor. But, he thought, the flavors are a little bit better by doing it the long way. Your tongue and I beg you to consider it this way as well.

For a recipe that involves a certain commitment of time, making this soup involves just a little bit of effort: some light knife-work, and hoisting your blender out of the cupboard. And the tomatoes need to be peeled and cored. To do this quickly, score the skin opposite the stem end with an “X”, then plunge the tomatoes into vigorously boiling water for about 30 seconds. Drain, rinse quickly with cold water, and peel with ease. Core with a grapefruit spoon or melon-baller if you haven’t got a specialty tool.

Finally, I’d love to suggest that the tomato sauce on which this soup is based is so fantastic by itself over pasta that you might just double the recipe and freeze the leftovers–unless you’re terrified by the phrase “purée in batches”, in which case you should take it easy, make one recipe’s worth (it yields 5-6 cups of sauce, 2 of which get turned into gazpacho), and make more next time.

Many, many thanks to Piero for offering this, and to Viviana for transcribing it. I’ve adapted the recipe slightly to accommodate US measurements, and have expounded a little here and there.

Thanks also to Beverly A. Jermyn, guest photographer for this post.

Basic Tomato Sauce
Yields 5-6 cups.
5 tablespoons olive oil
Half a small white onion, diced
1 small stalk celery, trimmed and diced
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
Good pinch of sugar
28 ounces canned whole tomatoes
1 1/2 lbs. fresh whole ripe tomatoes, peeled and cored
12 large fresh basil leaves, all but 2 leaves cut into small ribbons
2 cloves garlic
Leaves from a small stalk of rosemary
Leaves from a small stalk of thyme

In a large pot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion, carrot, and celery with a pinch of sugar until the vegetables color slightly, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, thyme, and half the basil. Press 1 clove of garlic and stir it in. Crush the tomatoes lightly with a spoon or ladle, and add a small amount of water if necessary to keep the tomatoes submerged. Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add a little more water if it looks too thick or dry. (I added about 2 cups total to mine.)

Meanwhile, in a small, heavy saucepan, combine 4 tablespoons olive oil with one whole garlic clove, the rosemary leaves, and 2 whole basil leaves. Set this over the very lowest of flames and let rest for about an hour. Remove from heat if the garlic looks too scorched.

When your tomatoes have completely broken down, add salt and pepper to your liking and carefully put the the sauce through a food mill or into a blender and purée to desired smoothness. Strain the herb-infused oil and add it to the sauce, discarding the herbs. Give the sauce one more whirl to blend thoroughly.

Gazpacho with Avocado Cream
Serves 6 as a first course.
2 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (see above)
2 cups peeled, cored, and de-seeded fresh tomatoes, chopped or crushed
Salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable stock, about 1/4 cup, if needed
1/4 cup heavy cream, more if needed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 ripe avocados
2 tablespoons olive oil
Chives, for garnish

Gently heat the cream (I did this for a few seconds in the microwave) and stir in the lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the cream, and refrigerate overnight.

Meanwhile, combine the tomato sauce and fresh tomatoes in a large pot over low heat and simmer about 2 hours, adding a little water if the mixture looks too thick or dry. You want it thin (but not watery) and velvety. Season with salt and pepper, and purée again in a blender if a smoother texture is desired. Refrigerate overnight.

Just before serving, peel and chop the avocados. Blend with the sour cream in a food processor, or with an electric mixer or stick blender, adding the olive oil in a steady stream. Add more cream if necessary to achieve a thick but pourable consistency.

Spoon this mixture into the bottoms of serving glasses.

Taste your gazpacho, adjust seasonings, and thin if desired with a few tablespoons light vegetable stock. Carefully pour the soup over the avocado cream. Garnish with chives.

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One Response to “A Little Bit of Effort”  

  1. 1 fitzmap

    Coming to the house and making this for me would be the trade-off for my taking tender loving care of your herbs.

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