When I was a new New Orleanian, I considered Creole tomatoes an overhyped local tradition. However, my first visit to the Crescent City Farmers Market resulted in an ample slice of humble tomato pie.
Boasting flavors so vivid they do not need salt, Creole tomatoes are now one of my favorite New Orleans staples. The city's brutal summer heat makes gazpacho my preferred way to use them. Variations on the cold Spanish soup range from cucumber and grape to classic tomato. It's killer health food: One cup has hefty doses of lycopene and vitamin C and less than 100 calories. The trick is making the dish lively and interesting. In gazpacho's case, that means ensuring you don't accidentally serve salsa with a soup spoon.
Here are a few hints and tricks:
In terms of preparation, gazpacho falls somewhere between vinaigrette and a salsa. The foundation is always oil, vinegar and a binding agent, traditionally day-old bread softened in water and vinegar. This recipe features a creative take: a mix of Champagne and red wine vinegar paired with almond oil. If you want a thicker soup, pulverized toasted almonds or roasted garlic can provide tasty, nutrient-dense alternatives to bread.
Gazpacho recipes and salsas share similar ingredients: bell pepper, garlic and/or shallot, occasionally onion and cucumber. Many recipes call to chop everything, throw it in a blender and pulse the ingredients. I prefer a food mill for a better texture with no seeds, but mortars and pestles or martini shakers make quick substitutes for a blender.
Everything should accentuate the Creole tomato, not overpower it. If I'm stuck with a blender, I blend all but one tomato, add cucumber and pepper in batches and taste often. Once I'm pleased with the flavor, I add the last tomato, pulse quickly and finish balancing the flavor with oils, vinegars and spices.
Because gazpacho is a quick dish that's easy to make in bulk, it's often the last thing prepared when entertaining. So what happens when the tomatoes aren't as ripe as you thought? Core the fruit or use whole canned tomatoes to boost the flavor. If you have time, store fresh tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple to ripen them.
Red wine vinegar gazpacho
2-1/2 lbs. tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1-1/2 seedless cucumbers, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 bell pepper (red preferred), coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic
1/8 cup Champagne vinegar
1/8 cup sherry vinegar (or red wine)
1/3 cup almond oil
1 teaspoon hot Spanish paprika
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Finely chopped shallot for garnish (optional)
Shrimp, crab or lobsterfor garnish (optional)
Nonfat Greek yogurt thinned with skim milkfor drizzle (optional)
Prepare vegetables. If you prefer a thicker soup, set aside one or two chopped tomatoes.
Crush the remaining tomatoes using a mortar and pestle or a blender. Add half of the pepper and garlic and blend. Add remaining produce to desired taste. Add the final tomato and pulse briefly.
Pour into a bowl (preferably one with an airtight lid) and stir in vinegar and spices. Add oil in a slow, steady stream and continue stirring. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.
Before serving, taste the soup again and add more oil, vinegar and spices as necessary to balance the flavors. There should not be a strong cinnamon taste, but cinnamon should provide depth and temper the paprika's heat.
Add salt and pepper and serve.