“Just like friggin’ Noah’s Ark” muttered the jaded, weary and glassy-eyed chef standing a few feet to my left. He was plating up both appetizers and starters at the same time and as the orders started to come into the kitchen at an alarming rate, his pace subconsciously accelerated to keep up. It always does. Every chef has their own way of coping when a frightening and laughable amount of orders scream into the kitchen at the same time. Some will yell something along the predictable lines; “Fuck this shit, this is fuckin’ ridiculous” (I toned the language down a little there, pan-rattlers can be notoriously foul mouthed on occasion). Others can get a little mystical; “See you on the other side” is one of my favourites – uttered by a good pal of mine when a tsunami of dockets comes in. I have heard of one who simply mutters “bye bye…” under their breath, to anyone who cares to listen.
The particular typhoon of dockets I describe above was hitting the kitchen at about 8pm on the 14th of February – San Valentino. Most chefs who have worked a few Valentine’s shifts will be au fait with the reference to Noah and his bulky craft drafted by the dude who was about to drown any fool who wouldn’t contemplate his existence. But I’ll admit, at the time the joke was lost on me. It wasn’t until later that night, sore and tired and nursing a cold beer that it dawned on me. “Oh shit, I get it – two of every animal!” I said to the entrée chef. He just shook his head, exuding a slow trickle of pity.
You see, come Valentine’s we get a certain type of customer. First, there are always just two of them, usually the standard boy/girl model. They also usually have little interest in dining out, which is seen by some as a mere formality before the main event of mattress squeaking to follow. As bitterly cynical as this may all sound, we actually do care about the food that hits the tables, to wit - this gazpacho that we presented to each diner as an amuse gueule on arrival.
Gazpacho is a Spanish soup that is synonymous with the cookery of Andalucia. It has rightfully achieved fame not only throughout Spain, but across the world as well. Some of you may well know that it contains sun-warmed tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber and garlic. What may not be immediately apparent is that regional variants of gazpacho can be found across Spain. Some contain eggs, others chunks of meat. Ajo blanco con uvas from Málaga contains not tomatoes, but white grapes, almonds, garlic and bread. However, what each of these delightful variations has in common is temperature. They are all served tantalizingly, refreshingly cold to take the edge of a sweltering summer day.
It could have been Tuesday, or maybe it was Wednesday – who can remember in this heat anyway? But sometime this week Sydney was officially declared to be in the throes of a heatwave. Penrith, a regional city 1 hour drive west of Sydney clocked up a bell-ringer 44 °C (111 °F). People unlucky enough to be walking the streets during daylight all took on an alarmingly glazed appearance. This was the factor foremost in my mind when I wrote our Valentine’s Day menu a few days ago. I imagined customers getting dressed to the nines, battling through the city traffic, sleuthing out a parking spot, only then to ascend the stairs to our restaurant. I could picture them as they sat down – shiny with the patina of perspiration. To remedy this, I arranged that every customer was presented with an icy glass of sparkling wine and a chilled shot glass within minutes of sitting down. In the shot was not liquor, but a Lilliputian amount of super-cold gazpacho, each topped with a few slivers of fresh spanner crab meat and a drizzle of Spanish extra virgin olive oil.
Of course, this recipe will work just as well served in regular soup bowls as a starter rather than an amuse gueule. I kinda dig the way the sweetness of fresh spanner crab punctuates the punchy tang of gazpacho, however any fresh crab meat will do just as nicely. Just don’t even contemplate using canned crab. Try fresh prawns, bugs or lobster meat instead. Or of course, feel free to leave the shellfish out entirely and slurp your gazpacho the way Spaniards do - unadorned. Best of all, this recipe requires only the briefest stove cooking, so when the mercury has burst out of its glass cage, you won’t be heating your house to absurdist levels.
- I’ve said it before – and you can confidently wager that I’ll say it again. These simple recipes rely entirely on the quality of the ingredients. Do not even contemplate making this soup unless you can get the freshest, ripest vegetables. Don’t skimp and don’t open any cans.
- Many recipes ask for simply water when making gazpacho. A pal of mine picked up the tip of using ice cubes while travelling through Spain several years ago. As far as tips go, this is a pretty good one. The use of ice has a magical effect – seizing the tomato flavour and preserving it until serving time.
- You will notice that I advise pureeing the tomatoes and vegetables separately. The vegetables in a food processor and the tomatoes in a cocktail blender. This is not strictly essential, but after experimenting we have reached the conclusion that the textural counterpoint of liquidized tomatoes layered against the coarser vegetables is very lush indeed and well worth the extra effort. Of course, feel free to blend them all at once; just don’t totally puree the soup.
- Spanish sherry vinegar is a wonderful and unique acidulant – complex, rich and tangy. It is pretty much essential to this recipe, but if you simply cannot find any, try using a good quality white wine vinegar instead. Do not for a second entertain the idea of using plain ‘white vinegar’ from the supermarket. Try another recipe until you can get the good stuff.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Cut a cross into the top of the tomatoes, and then plunge into the boiling water. Count to 10, then scoop them out and plunge into a sinkful of cold water to halt any further cooking. When cool, slip the skins off the tomatoes and discard. Roughly chop the tomatoes and place into a cocktail blender with the ice and whiz to a fine puree. Pour into a bowl and place into the fridge.
Place the cucumber, garlic, capsicum and bread into a food processor and pulse until coarsely, yet uniformly chopped. You are looking for chunks a little larger than a match head. Don not puree too finely, or you will steal the soul away from your soup.
Mix together the chopped vegetables and pureed tomatoes. Add the salt, pepper and 3/4 of the vinegar, then taste. It should be vibrant and quite tangy from the vinegar. Add the remainder if need be.
Pour into a container and chill for at least an hour, or even overnight. 30 minutes before serving, place 4 soup bowls in the fridge to chill. When ready to serve, thoroughly stir the olive oil through the gazpacho, then pour into the chilled bowls. Scatter the top of each serve with the crab, finishing with a final grind of fresh black pepper.
Serve immediately with a very chilled glass of flinty riesling, or even a cold, savoury, light bodied rosé.