January 08, 2009

Gazpacho Soup Day (sorry Rimmer)

Part of the "haul" this Christmas was a gift from my parents that had been close to the top of my wish list: a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook. The French Laundry in Yountville, California is one of the best restaurants in the U.S. Its executive chef/owner is Thomas Keller. If you've seen the Pixar movie Ratatouille, you've seen some of Keller's work: he was a creative consultant on the film, and the ratatouille recipe at the climax is based on the "confit byaldi" variant that appears in the book.

This is a high-end cookbook for a high-end restaurant, and I never expect to be able to try all the recipes myself - I lack many of the tools and an abundant supply of truffles, for example. I wanted to read the text and drool over the pretty pictures, and perhaps pick up some ideas that might inspire my own cooking. However, a number of the recipes (and parts of others) are actually fairly accessible and can be made with readily available ingredients. So my first stab at haute French cuisine was Keller's gazpacho soup (ironically, a Spanish dish).

I had wanted to try gazpacho soup ever since I first heard of it in the early '90s, on the cult British sci-fi comedy program Red Dwarf. The very idea of a cold soup intrigued me. Unfortunately I found myself turned off: first, it is a tomato soup, and I despised tomato soup. Second, it uses bread as a binder, and if there's anything I hated worse than tomato soup, it's wet bread.

Then, one night after church, I joined some friends at Pancho Villa Mexican Restaurant. I wasn't especially hungry and didn't want to spend a lot of money on food I didn't need. But I also didn't want to spend the night nursing a glass of ice water, either. So I compromised and ordered one of the smallest, least expensive things on the menu: a bowl of gazpacho soup. It was, surprisingly, delicious: cool, fresh, a little spicy, and garnished with a little fan of avocado slices whose buttery texture complemented the soup perfectly. The experience was not unlike eating a bowl of fresh salsa. I was a convert.

Being somewhat of the do-it-yourself persuasion when it comes to food, I've been trying to find one go-to recipe for gazpacho that I really enjoy. My default is from The Joy of Cooking, but, although it is good, it doesn't have the consistency I was looking for: by the book, the vegetable pieces are quite large. It's like a salad immersed in beef broth. But then I discovered the recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook, and I knew that this would be the first thing that I tried to make for myself.

There is nothing particularly challenging about this recipe: no exotic ingredients, no extreme preparation times, no need for any special tools you can't obtain without giving the Culinary Institute of America secret handshake. Out of respect for Chef Keller's copyrights, I won't publish the recipe here, but I recommend you find the book at your local library or bookstore. Basically, it consists of equal parts chopped tomatoes, red pepper, red onion, and English cucumber in a tomato juice base, along with some olive oil and seasonings.

The most challenging procedure in this recipe is peeling the tomatoes. There's a trick that makes this very simple: just score the bottom of the tomato with a shallow X, then dunk it into a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. The tomato practically peels itself. I have also recently learned (though this recipe doesn't specifcially call for it) that blanching garlic cloves can improve their flavour immensely. Just put the garlic in a pot with just enough cold water to cover it, and put the heat on. When the water boils, take the garlic out. Toss out the hot water, replace it with cold water, put the garlic back in, and repeat these steps about three more times. The result is a far mellower garlic flavour that doesn't have the harsh, bitter edge that it would otherwise.

So after assembling all the ingredients, I put the soup into a sealed container and left it overnight in the fridge, to let the flavours get to know each other. The next day, I ran it through the blender to get as smooth a purée as I could. After that, I strained it through my china cap strainer (another gift from my parents that was high on my wish list) to remove whatever solid particles still remained. The result was a homogeneous, bright red mixing bowl full of soup. It's made with raw vegetables, so the purée isn't the perfectly smooth, velvety texture you could get from a cooked soup. I doubt I could make it so without a very fine strainer, like a chinois. But just the china cap alone strained out about a quarter cup of assorted seeds and vegetable skin particles. A roommate asked to have this, as she thought it might be full of fibre. I won't argue with that, but it was pretty flavourless gunk, all the tasty goodness having stayed in the soup.

At the French Laundry, gazpacho is served as a canapé in a demitasse cup. I prefer something a little more meal-sized for lunch, along with a sandwich. Also, their usual garnish is a drizzle of balsamic glaze. Out of respect for my housemates and my own patience, I decided to forego boiling down vinegar in the kitchen for half a day, instead topping the bowl with a dollop of sour cream and some avocado slices. After all that work, how does it taste? Fantastic. It's cool and fresh and smooth, and has just a little bit of bite from the garlic and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The store was out of regular tomato juice, so I had to buy the low-sodium variety. Normally I wouldn't allow that stuff to pass my lips without putting the missing salt back in, but for Thomas Keller's gazpacho soup, it was perfect.

Was it worth all the effort? Yes. Will I do it again? Oh heck yes. This is going into my regular repertoire. I can't wait to try it again when fresh vegetables are in season and available at the farmer's market, and by then I'll probably have the recipe memorized. I might even attempt the balsamic glaze. Meanwhile, I'll be sure to try something a little more ambitious. While I doubt I'll ever find a pig's head for "Head to Toe," the Sauce Gribiche that accompanies it looks perfectly doable and would probably go well with some braised pork chops.

As an aside, you should go read Carol Blymire's blog French Laundry at Home. Like me, she received The French Laundry Cookbook as a gift. Unlike me, she was bound and determined to try every single recipe, and blogged the whole experience. I was gratified to see that she started with the same recipe I did, probably for roughly the same reasons. I've read about a third of her articles so far, and laughed out loud more than once at some of her less successful efforts. Plus, Carol apparently started a trend in food blogging. Well worth the read.