What’s the most refreshing chilled soup for a scorching summer day? Even if you hadn’t been primed by the headline, I’d bet my tomatoes that your answer is gazpacho.
And if it isn’t, it ought to be. Gazpacho is cool, delicious, and invigorating, and you don’t have to even approach the oven to make it. All you’ll need are a handful of ripe tomatoes, green peppers, garlic, a hunk of yesterday’s bread, and a generous splash of your favorite olive oil and vinegar. Purée everything in a food processor (or a blender, or use a cutting board and chop by hand), chill, and then ladle yourself a bowlful. Gazpacho is my summer tonic. It’s exactly what I want—sometimes the only thing I want—when the weather has me wilting.
A diverse family of Spanish soups
Actually, my favorite chilled summer soup is just one member of a large, loosely knit Spanish family of soups (including some that incorporate meat or fish and are served hot, but that’s for another time). Of the cool versions, there are essentially three types: red, white, and green gazpacho. Each one starts with the same fundamental ingredients— bread, olive oil, vinegar, and garlic—but the addition of another element or two sends it trotting off in its own direction.
Tomatoes are the main ingredient in red gazpacho, with green or red bell peppers, cucumbers, and onions either puréed in as well or else scattered on top of the finished soup. White gazpachos, which are actually rather ivory in color, contain ground almonds, or perhaps pine nuts or even lima beans, and they’re often garnished with grapes. It sounds a little strange, but once you try my delicate yet vibrant version, you’ll start craving it. Green gazpachos contain fresh herbs and perhaps some shredded lettuce, but they’re not very common, even in Spain.
First-rate vegetables produce vibrant flavor
Some soups can recover from less-than-ideal ingredients, but gazpacho can’t. The vegetables in gazpacho are generally raw and naked—there’s no slow simmering to coax out sweetness and no cream or butter to mask flavor imperfections—so the soup they produce will reflect their freshness and quality.
So you can bet I’m vigilant about picking the ripest, juiciest tomatoes, the crispest cucumbers and peppers, and the greenest, liveliest herbs when I’m making gazpacho. I happily use one of my best extra-virgin olive oils. And I’ll often use an authentic Spanish sherry vinegar (the traditional choice), though I might substitute red- or white-wine vinegar, or even lemon juice, depending on the version I’m making.
The only ingredient that doesn’t have to be fresh is the bread. Day-old or older bread is actually better. I prefer a baguette or country-style loaf with lots of taste and character, with the crusts trimmed if they’re especially thick or hard. You could also use unseasoned, fresh, homemade breadcrumbs.
Purée in a machine or chop by hand
Originally, preparing gazpacho was a strenuous effort requiring a long mashing in a mortar. No doubt some purists in Spain still make gazpacho this way, and my hat’s off to them, but I go the modern route and use a food processor or a blender. It’s faster, easier, and there’s no compromise in taste or texture.
With a machine, you can purée the ingredients to a lovely silken liquid in minutes or pulse them just long enough to get small pieces, giving the soup a more rustic, slightly coarser consistency. I like it both ways, but when I’m shooting for a smooth, intensely puréed gazpacho, I also strain it through a fine sieve to eliminate any tiny vegetable fibers. When I want the hearty kind I can get my teeth into, I chop the vegetables by hand or pulse them briefly in the processor until they’re about pea-size (in this case, a processor chops more cleanly than a blender). Sometimes I purée a portion of the mixture and hand-chop the rest for a pleasing contrast.
You can serve the gazpacho as soon as it’s made—just drop an ice cube or two in each bowl to chill it—but it’s even better after a few hours in the fridge, not just because it’s most satisfying when well chilled, but also because the flavors need time to meld and marry.
From the beginning, gazpacho was an improvised dish based on foods that were cheap and readily available. Now that it has grown roots in American soil, we can use our powers of reinvention, still staying true to its Mediterranean spirit. With that in mind, here are three recipes: one, the genuine Andalusian article, based on tomatoes and green peppers, and two more, both of them personalized riffs on red and white gazpacho. To me, they’re new friends in familiar garb.