Gazpacho variations to cool summer's heat

Chef Tim Spinner of La Calaca Feliz favors a pureed gazpacho without bread. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Chef Tim Spinner of La Calaca Feliz favors a pureed gazpacho without bread. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 03, 2012

FOR MY MONEY, gazpacho is the king of cold soups.

Vichyssoise lovers may beg to differ, preferring their bowls filled with a refined blend of cream, potatoes and leeks. And that's good, don't get me wrong. But when it comes to in-your-face flavor and full-on summer seasonal refreshment, the tomato-based vegetable soup from the Andalusian region of Spain gets my vote.

Chilled gazpacho, which is popular in Spain and Portugal, actually comes in three types: red, made with tomatoes and cucumbers, garlic, onion and vinegar; white, which borrows its color from ground almonds and is garnished with grapes; and green, an herb-infused concoction that is sometimes served with shredded lettuce. Gazpacho can be chunky or pureed, with varying degrees of heat, but the end result always tastes like a garden in your mouth.

While the traditional red version is always delicious, chefs around town are known to use the basic recipe as a jumping-off point for creative variations on the theme.

Chef Tim Spinner first experimented with Spanish flavors when he worked for Iron Chef Jose Garces. Spinner, who along with partner Brian Sirhal owns Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington and La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount, has added watermelon into the mix for a bracing riff on the norm. He favors a pureed gazpacho sans the bread.

"We keep most of our menu gluten-free, and there really isn't any need for bread as a thickener in this recipe; the soup is plenty thick enough," Spinner said. He garnishes his fruity, savory soup with an avocado "dumpling," which he makes by fanning out thin slices of avocado and filling them with diced mango, cucumber, red onion, lime juice and a drizzle of olive oil. "Then we wrap it in plastic wrap — it looks like an avocado golf ball."

At home, the mango salsa alone would serve just fine as a garnish. Spinner gives the recipe a modern Mexican tweak by using Fresno chilies for a bit of heat.

'Tis the season

A recent feast at Vernick Food & Drink in Rittenhouse included an amuse-bouche of raspberry gazpacho, a fuchsia-tinted slurp perfectly balanced between sweet and savory. Chef/owner Greg Vernick, who recently returned to the area to be closer to his Cherry Hill family, believes strongly that there is a time and place for gazpacho, and it's only when the mercury rises.

"A cold soup is only good when it's really hot outside," he said. "For a chef, it's hard to predict when it's going to be hot every day — we can get a cooler muggy, rainy day, and it won't make sense then." Hence serving the amuse-bouche gives him the option of seeing how his guests take to the chilled starter, which he can then feature as a special.

Besides a steamy setting, the most important thing about making a great gazpacho is being sure the ingredients are at the peak of ripeness and flavor, Vernick said. "Most gazpacho is all raw, so if the product you're blending isn't great, you'll taste that. You don't have the option of concentrating flavors by reducing them down." Although adding fruit doesn't make it traditional gazpacho, he still uses the term. "That lets people know what to expect — that they will be eating a cold, tomato-based soup."

He likes the bright notes that red wine vinegar adds to the mix, as well as the mouth feel of either a drizzle of mustard seed oil or good extra virgin olive oil. "It's a really refreshing dish, and if you make it at home, is a perfect meal along with a salad and some crusty bread."

The raw and the cooked

When he first went to work for Georges Perrier at Brasserie Perrier in 2003, chef Chris Siropaides was surprised to see the master chef cooking his traditional gazpacho. "Chef Perrier simmers all the ingredients down, then he purees it and gives the flavors a day to really come together. I've been doing it that way ever since, and just the other day a lady told me it was better than the gazpacho she had in Spain. The recipe is in the Le Bec-Fin cookbook."  

Siropaides, executive chef at Georges' in Wayne, created an uncooked variation on the theme that incorporates sweet corn and ripe avocados. "It's all about achieving a balance of flavor," he said. "Gazpacho has been made for thousands of years — it dates back to the Romans. But it's fun to experiment with seasonal ingredients to see what works. Corn and tomatoes are natural together, and avocado adds the fat element and tastes great."

Cooling and invigorating, gazpacho is an ideal meal that happens to be low in fat and super good for you. If the weather has you wilting, stay away from that oven and think gazpacho for dinner.  

Food and travel writer Beth D'Addono writes about authentic travel experiences at unchainedtravel.com.

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