There is an urgency to our harvest these days, a sense of diminishing returns that comes with the slow decline of light as days shorten and nights lengthen. The light has made its shift from summer’s buttery sunbeams to fall’s haunting golden glow, a change that came earlier this year than I can ever recall. I saw it in late June or early July and quickly turned away, instantly embracing that magical elixir of denial. But I saw it and, in the end, couldn’t ignore it.
We now understand, in a visceral way, that summer will not last forever. Nor will its tomatoes, melons, peppers and tender zucchini. This is the time to indulge in summer’s harvest at every opportunity — which, should you have a garden or do most of your shopping at a farmers market, may be every meal or nearly every meal.
It is a great time for the chilled tomato soups that we call gazpacho, as tomatoes are nearing their dead-ripe period, when they are heavy in the hand and full of succulent juices.
Gazpacho did not start out as the almost-a-salad-in-a-bowl sort of thing that it has evolved into today. Its roots are in Spain, as a peasant staple, a soup of leftover bread (including the crumbs), garlic, olive oil and vinegar, something that more closely resembles our bread soups.
Today, it is another thing entirely, though at its best it honors its spirit, if not its letter: It is an ideal way to use ingredients that might otherwise go to waste.
When it comes to gazpacho, I have a few guidelines that I think give the very best results. Within these guidelines, there is tremendous room for variation based on what is at hand. You might add fresh mint, diced or grated zucchini, minced cucumbers, tomatillos, corn, roasted sweet peppers or quartered cherry tomatoes, depending on what you have either in your garden or pantry. The important thing is to get the basic foundation right by peeling your tomatoes over an open flame or high burner instead of plunging them into boiling water, by mincing the tomatoes or passing them through a food mill and not putting them in a blender or food processor, and by not using raw green peppers, which will eclipse all the other flavors.
The easiest way to vary this basic recipe is by changing the tomatoes. If you’d like golden gazpacho, use all yellow, orange and gold tomatoes. Green tomatoes — not unripe ones, but those heirlooms that are green when ripe — make a beautiful and delicious chilled soup, too. For other variations, see suggestions at the end of the recipe.
Serves 4, easily doubled
6 to 8 large ripe red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, minced and drained (see Note below)
1 serrano, minced
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 small red onion, cut into small dice
3 cups homemade chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons best-quality red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons each: basil, Italian parsley and cilantro, chopped
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
1/3 cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil
Put the tomatoes into a medium bowl. Add the serrano, garlic and onion and stir in the stock, lemon juice and vinegar. Cover and let rest about 15 minutes.