Summer is always a strange and wonderful season in France. As the French populace goes on vacation, so too does the content on most radio stations, the issues that preoccupy the airwaves (see Benalla and its repercussions), and magazines that focus on children’s games and summer romance. The French know how to relax, turn off the mind, settle into the warm sand under a huge umbrella. And it turns out that most of the 42 million French who go on vacation in summer head to the beach, whether it be Cap Ferret, Biarritz, Cannes, or Corsica. Those of us who are able to vacate at other times of year benefit from the urban peace and quiet that ensues.
One Bright Side of Heat
This summer is particularly strange and wonderful as temperatures continue to beat records. The Mairie of Paris has responded by launching an application called Extrema Paris that tells where in the city to be cool, and publishing two interactive online maps, one for daytime, one for night time, with cool city spots. Many of the city’s parks and gardens are open later than usual, too, and more and more have installed “brumisateurs,” towers that spray a fine, cooling mist.
Another Bright (Edible) Side
One of summer’s bright sides is always the abundance of fine fruit and vegetables that heat yields, from peaches and nectarines to artichokes and, mostly, tomatoes. We wait and wait then, suddenly, tomatoes are everywhere, in every hue and shape. I’m partial to big, fat, juicy heirlooms like coeur de boeuf with its silken skin, tender flesh that almost explodes when you bite into it and its all around sweet depth, and the deep red Rose de Berne, which stays firm even when its bursting with juice and flavor. I cut coeur de boeuf into fat slices, drizzle them with vinaigrette and shower them with flat-leaf parsley leaves and onion for a heart-stopping first course. As for Rose de Berne, these I turn into that joy of summer, gazpacho. I almost forget how much I love gazpacho until I taste it the first time during tomato season. Then it all comes back to me, the chill, the vibrancy, the liquid/solid texture.
My favorite gazpacho includes a kiss of smoke because, naturally, I put the tomatoes and the red bell pepper on the grill, over smoking grapevine cuttings before I whir them into the soup. The result is hauntingly delicious, and something of a departure from the usual. So, when you’re getting out the grill anyway for those burgers, or chops, or slabs of bacon or ribs, make sure you grill tomatoes and peppers and turn them into this soup. Serve it chilled but not frosty, and add an extra touch of lemon juice if your tomatoes are sweet.
GAZPACHO, FRENCH-STYLE - LE GAZPACHO A LA FRANCAISE
Here, the simple purity of summer tomatoes and red bell peppers grilled gently over the coals, teamed with farm-fresh cucumbers, garlic, and onions makes this the most refreshing gazpacho you’re likely to taste. It speaks of the finest and most fresh ingredients, softly spiked with hot pepper and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Simple to prepare, I predict that once you’ve tried it, your summer meals will rarely be without it!
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: long tongs, metal spatula, wood chips or grapevine cuttings sarments de vigne, food processor
PREPARATION AND GRILL TIME: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including 2 hours chilling time (minimum).
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: simple
About 2pounds;1 kgmedium-sizedfirm yet ripe tomatoes, sliced in half horizontally
One medium-sized(8 ounce;250g)red bell peppercutquarters, seeds and pith removed
1small (3 ounce; 90g),onionpeeled and quartered, preferably fresh and sweet
1 good-sized(10 ounce; 300g)cucumberpeeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1clove new garlic
Pinch fine sea salt
1tablespoonfreshly squeezed lemon juice
Piment d’Espelette or an equal mix of sweet and hot paprikato your taste
Basil leaves- - for garnish
Seed the tomatoes. Brush them and the pepper with oil.
Light a medium-sized fire in the barbecue. When the coals are red and dusted with ash, spread them in a tight, single layer; they need to emit concentrated heat.
Place a handful of grape vine cuttings or wood chips over the coals and let them burn for a minute or two, then set the grill over the coals and put the barbecue cover in place, vents open. When the grill is hot, place the vegetables directly over the coals, cut-side down. Grill until the tomatoes and the peppers are marked with grill marks, 2 to 3 minutes, then turn them, sprinkle with salt, cover the grill, and cook until the tomatoes are tender, about 4 minutes. Transfer the tomatoes from the grill to a shallow soup bowl or platter that will catch the juices. Cover the grill and continue grilling the peppers until their skin is blackened and the peppers are tender, an additional 5 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a paper bag, to sweat.
Remove the skin from the tomatoes and the peppers, and discard. Save all the juices from both the tomatoes and the pepper.
Place the tomatoes with their juices, all but one quarter of the pepper with any juices from the pepper, the onion, the cucumber and the garlic in the work bowl of a food processor fit with a steel blade, and process until you have a thick purée. Add the lemon juice and the piment d’Espelette, pulse, and adjust the seasoning. Place the gazpacho in the refrigerator, covered, to chill. This will take at least 2 hours.
About 10 minutes before serving the soup, remove it from the refrigerator. Dice the remaining quarter of grilled pepper. Adjust the seasoning of the soup and divide it among 6 or 8 bowls. Drizzle each bowl with a bit of the remaining olive oil, garnish with some of the diced pepper and a basil leaf or two.