All summer long, our friends and neighbors have complained that real summer weather has yet to arrive in Martina Franca. Temperatures have hovered around 80 degrees, which is just about perfect as far as we are concerned. But everyone even remotely connected to the summer visitor trade here has been praying for serious summer mercury readings—the kind of weather that drives people to eat out, go to the beach and buy industrial quantities of gelato. All that changed yesterday when we ushered in our first three-digit temperatures of the summer. Yes, it was 102 degrees in the shade. Even for Puglia, this is an extreme display, so we hunkered down for a hot one.
The day’s high temperatures were accompanied by the wispy breath of a southern breeze, bringing with it even more heat. A stultifying calm settled over the town. The few pedestrians we spotted moved slowly, stopping every so often in shaded alleyways to regroup. The words “Che caldo!” drifted up through our open windows, the only conversation we overheard throughout the day. And tourists were virtually non-existent, preferring to repair to their hotel pools or trek to the beach with all the other sentient Pugliesi who could escape the heat of their towns. We cranked our fans up to their highest settings, moving only to refresh under tepid showers. Yet even our cold water settings couldn’t cope with the water pipes, which absorbed the heat from the fierce sun enough to heat our shower water as it traveled down from our terrace to our bathroom. It was a singularly unproductive day. Even thinking required far too much energy.
I couldn’t even muster much enthusiasm in the culinary department. Our standards sank to the lowest common denominator. Whatever we ate had to require very little effort and no heat whatsoever. Venturing outside to shop was a non-starter. After a quick survey, I remembered the flat of gorgeous tomatoes a friend just gave us, along with some peppers and the curious cross between melon and cucumber called cocomeri in these parts. A little digging produced a red onion, so we were in business. Although it’s decidedly non-Pugliese, Andalucian gazpacho was the order of the day.
There are many approaches to gazpacho, but I chose Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ version from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which is as unadulterated as possible. This soup is utterly reliant on great ingredients, so don’t attempt it without deeply flavorful fresh tomatoes. The pesky work of skinning the tomatoes should be accomplished in the (relative) cool of the morning since the soup needs time to chill. But what a thrill it is to pull this extraordinary soup out of the refrigerator in the heat of the day. You’ll return to this recipe again and again as you contemplate a summertime bounty of tomatoes and devastatingly hot days.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Andalucian Gazpacho
3 ½ lbs. ripe, red tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped (Peel tomatoes by bringing a large pot of water the boil and immersing tomatoes for about 30 seconds. Don’t crowd the pot; too many tomatoes will lower the temperature too much.)
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
½ small red onion
1 green pepper, chopped (I used a red pepper instead.)
1 long cucumber, peeled and chopped (I used a Pugliese cocomero, a cross between a melon and a cucumber.)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar (I used a combination of white and red vinegar.)
1 2-inch slice of stale, white country-style bread (I used a frisella, the ubiquitous, twice-baked crostino of Puglia)
½ cup cold water
½ tsp. ground cumin (I didn’t have this, so I didn’t use it.)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Kosher or sea salt
Sugar (sugar can accentuate the flavor of the tomatoes; if you use it, ½ tsp. is probably sufficient)
Finely diced cucumber, green pepper (I used red pepper), red onion, and/or hard-boiled egg
Put the tomatoes, garlic, onion, pepper and cucumber in a blender and whirl briefly to puree. You can do this in small batches if it’s easier; for this quantity, you’ll need to blend twice, so just cut the ingredients in half for each blenderful. With the blender ajar, pour in the oil and vinegar while you process the vegetables.
Tear the bread into small chunks and soak briefly in the cold water. When the bread is soaked thoroughly, gently squeeze out the excess water and add the soaked bread to the blender along with the cumin and cayenne. Process to incorporate thoroughly.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and/or a very small quantity of sugar. More sherry vinegar also may be added to adjust the flavor. If the thoroughly pureed soup seems too thick, add ice-cold water until the desired consistency is reached. (Note: we like it on the thick side, so I skipped this step.).
The soup should be light and smooth, almost creamy in consistency. If it is still too coarse in texture, you may press it through a sieve (I didn’t find this step necessary.) Chill the gazpacho well, but not so chilly that the individual flavors are too repressed. Garnish each serving with the some or all of the traditional garnishes noted above, or serve each of them separately at the table so that everyone may add their own.
Makes 6-8 servings.