Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother’s Day! One of Those No-Cook Days
What’s cooking? Gazpacho

My mother was a little bit crazy. Okay, occasionally she was a lot crazy. But she meant well.

I called her “Mumzy” ever since one summer day when I was home from college, a day when I guess my brother and I had made one too many requests. “And stop calling me ‘Mama,’” she said. “It’s so boring. ‘Mama, Mama, Mama’ – why can’t you call me something with a little more pizzazz? Something like... ‘Mumzy.’”

I thought that need to be slightly exotic was part of her personality as an artist. Our house in San Antonio was a private showcase for her art, which hung in every room. I still have works of hers – in watercolor, oils, mosaic tile, collage, and India ink. Her friends were always asking her to paint something for them, and she gave a few pieces away. But her best-known – and least serious – work was the powder room in our house, where she decorated the walls with a pattern of smiling mermaids. Like many of her projects, it took more time and effort than she had imagined in the planning stage; she was so tired of smiling mermaids by the time she finished that she painted the last one frowning. You could only see it when the door was closed, and my brother and I never tired of pointing it out to our friends.

I didn’t inherit her talent, but she taught me an appreciation for line and form and color, along with the courage to wipe the canvas clean and start over if you don’t like what you’ve done. I make use of that courage in the kitchen these days.

She wasn’t a perfect mother, but who among us is? I lie awake at night sometimes, thinking of the things I myself should have done differently as a mother, and being thankful that my sons turned into such nice people in spite of my efforts. Mumzy gave it her best shot, which I think is all any of us can do. And my brother and I never doubted that she loved us.

* * *

My mother’s love of the exotic made itself known in the kitchen, though the dishes she produced in that vein were only exotic in the 1950s and ‘60s. Gumbo, steamed artichokes, fresh spinach salads, and pickled eggs made regular appearances, and her parties might feature chicken liver pâté or mango champagne cake. Gazpacho was also a favorite dish, and while I don’t have her recipe for it, I do have one from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook that is to die for.

It works well for this post, because Mumzy didn’t really like everyday cooking. So this recipe doesn’t require any. It’s simple and easy – the key is that the ingredients really need to marinate together overnight, so start the day before you want to serve. The sweetness of the red onion and tomatoes balances the slight bitterness of the green bell peppers and cucumber, and there’s a fresh vegetable-ness that comes through loud and clear. Yet, departing from tradition, it’s served as a fine purée, so you don’t get that sensation of chewing your way through the produce aisle.

The balsamic reduction is a sparkly garnish to the soup – only a few dots on top will do the trick – but it’s not mandatory. The soup will be glorious with or without it. The reduction takes only time – almost no effort – and can hang out in your pantry for months next to the oils and vinegars. I keep mine in a plastic squeeze bottle, like this. Or you can garnish it with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche or even fresh ricotta.

Gazpacho is light and refreshing as part of a summer meal, but I love serving it as an hors d’oeuvre for a party any time of the year. I keep a good supply of 2-ounce shot glasses for that purpose, several styles of which are available on I put out a tray of filled glasses, and nearby I leave a pitcher of more for refills.


Adapted from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook.

Makes about 8 cups.

1 cup diced tomato (½-inch dice)
1 cup diced green bell pepper
1 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced English cucumber
1½ teaspoons minced garlic
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons best quality olive oil
¼ cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups tomato juice or V-8
sprig of fresh thyme

Combine all ingredients into a large pitcher or bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove the thyme sprig and process in a blender until the mixture is smoothly puréed (2-3 minutes). Chill until ready to serve.

Garnish with any of the following:
■ a few drops of Balsamic Reduction (also called Balsamic Glaze), and/or celery stick or endive leaf or toasted crouton
■ dolop of sour cream or crème fraîche or fresh ricotta

Balsamic Reduction/Glaze

Place 2 cups of balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan on medium heat. When steam begins to rise from the vinegar, reduce the heat to keep the vinegar at that “steam” point. You don’t want to generate any bubbles. (If you can’t reduce your heat enough, you may want to use a heat diffuser.) Keep the liquid at this “steam” level for 2-3 hours, without stirring, until it becomes thick and syrupy. You’ll have about ½ cup of liquid. Store in a squeeze bottle in your pantry.

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