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Keep cool with ice-cold gazpacho

David Gutman
Take the ripest, best looking vegetables at the market to make gazpacho, a summer soup favorite.
David Gutman Mix fresh tomatoes, corn and peppers together and use them as a bed for a simply seared piece of fish.

"You had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them. That is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better." -- "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

Huck Finn, culinary scholar, was right: Things go better when flavors can swap around.

The magic of pot roast, chili, mole and so many other dishes is that a bunch of different ingredients come together to form a harmonious whole. You end up with something entirely different, and much better, than could have been achieved by cooking all the same ingredients separately.

Stock, made daily in pretty much every great restaurant in the world, is just a barrel of odds and ends -- bones and vegetables -- slowly simmered together so the juice kind of swaps around.

The produce is so good this time of year you can use Huck Finn's swapping flavors theory without even having to cook anything.

Just take the ripest, best looking vegetables at the market, cut them up, mix them together, season them and then give the juices a little time to swap around.

Make gazpacho -- chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and herbs. It's easy (just cut everything up and put it in a bowl), cheap (none of the main ingredients cost more than $1.99 per pound at Capitol Market), and is both filling and refreshing.

There aren't many better summer meals than a big bowl of gazpacho, bracingly cold from the refrigerator, when temperatures hit the 90s with unrelenting humidity.

Contrary to most of the recipes you'll find, you don't need, or even want, a food processor or a blender to make gazpacho. It might save you a few minutes, but you'll end up with a coarse, uniform puree rather than a chunky mélange.

On the spectrum of viscosity running from salad to soup, gazpacho wants to be somewhere in the middle. You definitely need a spoon to eat it, but you're going to have some trouble if you try to pick the bowl up and drink it.

So just chop everything roughly by hand and then let salt, time and aggressive stirring soup everything up.

With your ingredients, the softer and mellower they are, the larger you can chop them. So tomatoes can be chopped into large dice, but hot peppers and onions should be finely chopped, with cucumbers and sweet peppers somewhere in the middle.

Then just season everything with salt, pepper, oil and vinegar, and put it in the fridge until it's nice and cold and the juices have had some time to swap.

Just because you're looking to Huck Finn as your culinary guru doesn't mean you can't inject a little a little elegance and sophistication into your food.

In a barrel of odds and ends, not only do the juices swap, but the whole thing gets a little saucy, so it can double as both a sauce and a side dish.

So take tomatoes, corn and peppers -- three vegetables that really should only be eaten in summer -- mix them together and use them as a bed for a simply seared piece of fish. Heirlooms are nice, but certainly not requisite. Mortgage Lifters and Cherokee purples are both at Capitol Market right now.

You'll have to do a little cooking, but not much, and the magic still comes from that confluence of swapping juices.

Gazpacho

Makes 2 quarts, enough for 4 healthy portions or 6-8 appetizer size portions.

   5     large tomatoes, coarsely chopped

   2     small cucumbers, chopped

   2     sweet peppers, chopped

   1     hot pepper, finely chopped

   1/2 sweet onion or one small bunch green onions, finely chopped

   3    cloves garlic, minced

   1    handful herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, tarragon; pick one or two), chopped

   1/4 cup breadcrumbs

   1/4 cup olive oil

   2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

         Salt

         Pepper

   5    ice cubes

   Croutons (optional garnish)

   3    tablespoons olive oil

   2    cloves garlic           

   3    slices stale bread

CUT up all your vegetables (don't lose any tomato juices or seeds while you're cutting) and put them in a bowl with the bread crumbs.

ADD salt (about 2 teaspoons), pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Don't be bashful with the seasoning, especially the vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

STIR everything vigorously for 30 seconds or so. Stirring is important because it will bruise the tomatoes and make the whole thing juicier.

THROW in the ice cubes, which will both cool the mixture down quicker and edge you toward that ideal spot on the salad-soup spectrum.

PUt the bowl in the fridge for at least an hour to chill.

To make croutons (optional):

PEEL and smash the garlic.

ROUGHLY tear the bread into crouton-size chunks.

HEAT the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat, then add the garlic and cook until golden, but not brown.

REMOVE the garlic and add the bread to the pan. Toss to coat the bread in oil. Continue to cook over medium heat until the bread gets a little toasty and brownish on both sides.

REMOVE from heat and season with salt and pepper.

MAKE sure the soup is refrigerator cold before you serve it. It should chill for at least an hour, but a couple hours is probably ideal and a few days won't hurt.

SERVE in chilled bowls, topped with croutons and a drizzle of olive oil.

Fish with Tomatoes, Corn and Peppers

Makes 4 servings.

   4       ripe tomatoes

   3       sweet peppers

   3       ears of corn

   1       handful basil, chopped

   3       tablespoons olive oil, plus some for cooking

   1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

   1 to 1 1/2 pounds firm fleshed white fish. Haddock, cod, snapper and perch are all available right now. Pick what looks good.

           Salt

           Pepper

   1      knob of butter

COARSELY chop the tomatoes and put them in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt.

ROAST the peppers. If you have a gas stove, put the peppers directly on the flame and cook, turning with tongs as needed, until they are charred (totally black) on all sides. If you have an electric stove, put the peppers under the broiler, turning occasionally until they're charred and soft.

PUT the peppers in a separate bowl and cover it for about 10 minutes, allowing them to cook with their own residual heat. After 10 minutes, peel the charred skins off the peppers discarding the skins, stems and seeds.

CHOP the peppers and add them to the tomatoes.

CUT the kernels off the corn. Heat a heavy skillet until hot, then add just a slick of oil and the corn kernels. Cook the corn for a couple minutes, tossing occasionally until the kernels get just a little color.

ADD them to the tomatoes and the peppers.

ADD the basil, season with salt, pepper, oil and vinegar. Stir, and let the flavors swap while you cook the fish.

CUT the fish into four pieces and season it with salt on both sides and pepper just on the bottom. (You can put pepper on both sides, but if you're going for pretty presentation, it kind of looks like little flecks of dirt. Salt is the more important seasoning anyway.)

HEAT a skillet big enough to hold all the fish without touching. When it's hot, add a little oil and the fish.

COOK for about two minutes, then use a thin bladed spatula to turn the fish.

ADD a healthy knob of butter to the pan, it will melt, foam, subside and begin to brown.

BASTE the fish with a spoon, when the foam subsides, with the browning butter. Tilt the pan toward you with one hand, so the butter pools at the bottom, as you baste with the other. The fish will continue to cook because the pan is still hot and so is the butter. Baste continually until the fish is just cooked through. Total cooking time shouldn't be more than four minutes or so.

TO serve, divide the vegetable odds and ends between four plates and top each one with a piece of fish.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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