It’s that time of the year — the season of the tomato! Red, green or gold ... sweet or tart ... but always plump and juicy, just-ripe tomatoes are what we dream of when the season is lean and the weather cold. And many of us, picky, and with strict standards about the quality of our fresh tomatoes, often just do without, or open a can and count the days. Yes, there are greenhouse tomatoes and hydroponic tomatoes, and with sunny weather somewhere, there’s always a supply. Still, tomatoes at the peak of their early summer best are unmatched.
Although the Italians have been growing tomatoes since the 1500s, you might be surprised to learn that tomatoes are native to the Americas, specifically South America. The word tomato is a modification of “tomati,” a word used by the Indians of Mexico. Many historians believe Thomas Jefferson brought tomato seeds back from Europe to plant at Monticello, although it’s not entirely clear. It is documented, though, that Jefferson grew and served tomatoes at his Virginia estate.
Early colonists believed tomatoes to be poisonous, as the plant is a member of the nightshade family, which has some poisonous species. Fortunately for us, at some point in our agricultural history, a brave forager discovered that tomatoes would not kill you. By 1824, there were 17 recipes for tomatoes included in one of the first American cookbooks, “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph. It included a recipe for “Gaspacha,” a dish from Spain. So how did it get to Virginia? Food historian Karen Hess says that Mary Randolph’s sister lived in Spain and probably passed it on to her.
Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup associated with Spanish cuisine, with its beginnings traced back to the Andalusian region. Interestingly, a fundamental ingredient of this ancient soup, with versions dating to early Greece and Rome, is not tomato, but bread. Many early recipes for gazpacho are a white version containing bread, water, garlic, vinegar and oil. These primitive recipes represent a poetic example of the beginnings of the art of food, of making something delicious out of almost nothing. Around the 16th century, tomato seeds arrived in Spain. Since then, red gazpacho, made delicious with the absolute best tomatoes, has become the most popular version.
Like so many popular foods, gazpacho can have a bad image when presented as a bland bowl of tomato juice or an equally disappointing combination of chopped unripe tomatoes and spongy cucumbers. The real deal is a celebration of freshness and simplicity. In the summertime, when the star of this dish is at its peak and the heat can discourage even going near a stove, it’s time to give my recipe for Gazpacho with Avocado and Bell Pepper Relish a try.
SPANISH GAZPACHO WITH RELISH
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped; or one 28-ounce can of quality plum tomatoes, chopped
1 medium onion, preferably a sweet variety such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, coarsely chopped
1 large cucumber, peeled
2 slices of country-style white bread, crust removed
1 1/4 cups blanched slivered almonds
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 scallions or green onions, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika
1/2 teaspoon sugar or sugar substitute
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
1/2 chilled tomato juice or cold water, as needed
In a large bowl, stir together tomatoes, onion, cucumber, bread, almonds, bell peppers, scallions, garlic, salt, pepper, paprika and sugar. Working in 2-cup batches, whirl the mixture in a blender until finely chopped but not pureed.
Return mixture to the bowl and stir in oil, vinegar and hot pepper sauce. Add enough chilled tomato juice or cold water, a tablespoon at a time, to make the gazpacho soupy but not too thin.
Cover bowl and refrigerate soup until very cold, at least a couple of hours or up to 2 days. Stir gazpacho and ladle into bowls, or pour it at the table from a wide-mouth pitcher. Garnish with Avocado and Bell Pepper Relish. Serves 6 to 8.
AVOCADO AND BELL PEPPER RELISH
1 ripe peeled avocado, diced
1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped purple onion
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Mix all ingredients together until well-combined. Top soup with the relish.
Angela Shelf Medearis is an awardwinning children’s author, culinary historian and the author of seven cookbooks. Her website is www.divapro.com. To see how-to videos, recipes and much, much more, Like Angela Shelf Medearis, The Kitchen Diva! on Facebook. Read Gina Harlow’s Blog at peachesandprosciutto.blogspot.com. Recipes may not be reprinted without permission from Angela Shelf Medearis. © 2014 King Features Synd., Inc.,