On a recent hot and humid eveni
ng I was standing in my garden with an empty plate in one hand and a small juice-glass of wine in the other; I was looking for dinner.
I set down the glass of wine on the edge of the porch and picked a few leaves of basil and a couple small chilies, and put them on the plate. A couple perfectly ripe tomatoes also went in the mix, as did a cucumber and small bell pepper.
As is often the case, I nibbled herbs and vegetables as I foraged. And as I bent to look in ankle-high weeds for low growing herbs I absent mindedly bit into a chili. Almost immediately I was overcome by the telltale symptoms of spice. I quickly knocked back the last of the wine in the glass but to no avail; my tongue was on fire and I was sweating profusely (I think I may have swore a little profusely as well). Then I bit off the end of a small cucumber and chewed it slowly, somewhat easing the pain on my tongue, but I was still sweating.
As I stood there nursing my tongue I continued to forage while I thought how interesting it is that certain foods, delicious as they are, can actually cause pain. I also recalled a story I recently heard on National Public Radio (NPR). It was a story about a scientist named Sir Charles Blagden who in 1775 was so curious about the effects of heat on humans that he put himself to the test. He convinced two of his colleagues to sit in a heated room with a dog, a few steaks, and some eggs, just to see what would happen.
Gradually the temperature was increased to 240F, which is well above the boiling point of water (212F). The steaks cooked, as did the eggs, but surprisingly the men and the dog survived. Panting and sweating is apparently the reason for this: human and canine bodies, he said, kick into survival mode under such extreme conditions. The scientist concluded that the micro-layer of air that is created on our skin as it sweats and evaporates is enough to protect us (the dog's panting, inversely, cooled him from the inside out).
It really is no coincidence, then, that spicy foods are indigenous to hot climates because the spice actually serves a purpose: it makes a person sweat, thus cooling them down. And this is what I thought about as I stood sweating in my front yard with a piece of cucumber in my mouth and ingredients for gazpacho on my plate.
Unlike vichyssoise, the other famous chilled soup, whose recipe sprung from the heart of a sentimental chef that missed his mother's home cooking, gazpacho is peasant fare in origin. It was and still is a soup that is best made when all of the ingredients are ripe at the same time, and it's a recipe the needs no actual cooking.
Gazpacho is a recipe that has been around in various forms for a very long time, but the path to what we know it as today is convoluted. It's said to have existed in Spain for more than a thousand years (possibly Moorish or Arab in origin), but prior to the fifteenth century it didn't contain tomatoes and wasn't red (tomatoes are a New World ingredient; they didn't find their way into European cooking until the 1500's). It most likely began as a vegetable, garlic and herb soup that was thickened with breadcrumbs and ground almonds. Gazpacho really is one of the truly archaic recipes of the Western world that has survived, albeit changed, as a type of liquid food made from stale bread; it's sort of an edible archeological dig for food historians. Interestingly, the word soup is derived from the Middle English, sop, or sup, referring to a stale piece of bread onto which broth is poured to give a slight meal some substance. The Spanish word for soup is sopa.
Unlike vichyssoise there are no hard and fast rules as to what gazpacho is or should be, but it's often based on many of the same ingredients from its original versions: vegetables, bread, garlic, vinegar, and oil; sort of a liquid salad.
After spending my day on-the-job in a hot kitchen the last thing I wanted to do was heat up my home kitchen; gazpacho was the perfect thing. I washed the vegetables and chopped them coarsely. After pouring myself another glass of wine I put them in a blender and turned on the radio. I listened to NPR and ate the soup that was still warm, not from the stove, but from the sun which helped the vegetables grow. And as I sat there sweating, from the heat of the day and the spice of the soup, I tried to remember that it was actually good for me.
Yield: 4-5 cups
2 cups diced tomatoes
1/2 cup diced red bell peppers
1/2 cup diced cucumbers
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup diced onion
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 hot peppers
2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano
Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and pulse until desired consistency. Let stand 10 minutes; served chilled or at room temperature. Optional garnishes include but are not limited to: diced raw onion, hard cooked egg, parsley, and olives.