Happy 4th of July! To me, the 4th of July is a small-town holiday, and not just because of the inevitable disappointment of San Francisco's fog-shrouded fireworks. This is a day for shiny fire trucks and kids with red-white-and-blue ribbons woven through the spokes of their bikes riding down Main Street, for the scent of hamburgers grilling at the neighbors' house, for popsicles dripping sticky down your arm and the magic glow of sparklers in the deepening twilight, an appetizer to the fireworks booming over the high school football field.
Walking down the street in Novato, where I'm house-sitting for the next few weeks, every shop is festooned with flags, glitter, and red, white, and blue. From Mill Valley to Noe Valley, goofy patriotism wins the day when it comes to decor. Can there be too much bunting? Too many Uncle Sam hats covered in stars and stripes? Too many cupcakes topped with raspberries and blueberries?
Unlike, say, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July is a holiday where everyone wants to eat, but no one really wants to cook. For one, unless you live right in chilly San Francisco, it's too hot to be in the kitchen, not when there's ice-cold beer in the cooler and lemonade on the patio. Get someone--your husband, your butch spouse--to man (or woman) the grill, pile up the sausages, salmon, or burgers around them, hand them a cold drink and presto! Your entree is complete. There remains only the sides, and anyone can pour out a bowl of chips, put out some hummus and salsa (we're a melting-pot country, after all), toss together some potato salad and lay out the buns, pickles, lettuce and tomato.
Oh, would that it were that easy! I've been to many, many summer barbecues like that, and there's always a catch. You see, getting the grill started is the duty of the host. And somehow, the host is always too busy cracking beers and kicking back with the bros to notice how half the guests (usually, in my experience, the less chip-inclined female half) are ready to gnaw their own arms in hunger by the time the charcoal is finally ignited. Note to grillers: charcoal takes a long time to heat up and burn down. Longer than you think! Really! Even you with the flick-the-button propane grills, some preheating is necessary, especially if you're doing ribs or chicken.
Rather than start surreptitiously searching my hosts' drawers for matches, though, I've learned a trick that never fails: Bring gazpacho.
Gazpacho, my friends, is the 4th of July barbecue's best friend. Face it: no one really wants to eat salad at a barbecue. Undressed, it shrivels; dressed, it turns to sludge after an hour in the sun. All those leafy greens take up valuable paper-plate real estate, space that could be better filled with pita chips and guacamole. But when the good parts--the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the olive oil and vinegar--are diced, pureed, and chilled into an easily drinkable soup, what was once superfluous becomes madly refreshing and much more satisfying than a pile of lettuce. As California native M.F.K. Fisher wrote in How to Cook a Wolf, in 1942,
"...it is the perfect summer soup, tantalizing, fresh, and faintly perverse as are all primitive dishes eaten by too-worldly people.
It is good for lunch, or for supper. It is especially good if you have a barbecue, and want some legitimate and not too alcoholic way to keep your guests busy while you turn the steak: put a big tureen of it on the table, and let them serve themselves into cups, and eat toasted crusts with it if they want. Then when you declare the entree done, whether it be filet or ground-round patties, you will find appetites sharp and wits fairly clear, and a satisfying patina of conversation glimmering in the air."
There are many different gazpachos, all born from the baking summers of Andalusia in central Spain, and since adapted all around the world. Right now, since truly fabulous local tomatoes are still a month away, my current favorite version uses strawberries to boost that perfect balance of acid and sweet.
Many recipes call for canned tomato or V8 juice; I find it too tongue-coatingly thick and metallic for something as pure as this salad soup. Ice water helps the cool vegetables along; you can add more ice cubes after chilling, to keep it cold on the buffet. Serve in a punch bowl or pitcher, with glasses or mugs alongside. It also makes a great first course for a sit-down lunch; in that case, add a spoonful of finely diced strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers to each bowl, and drizzle with basil oil just before serving. Or, for true 4th of July kitsch, you can top each bowl with stripes of creme fraiche and "stars" of fresh blueberries. Hurrah for the red, white, and blue!
Sweet summer strawberries give a certain je ne sais quoi to this excellent warm-weather refresher, especially in the early summer before local tomatoes are ripe.
Makes 1 ½ quarts (6 cups)
2 pints strawberries, preferably organic, hulled
1 red pepper, seeds removed, chopped
1 large tomato, cored
½ sweet onion, such as Maui, Vidalia, or Walla Walla, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 large cucumber, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, or to taste
1/4 tsp sea salt, or to taste
freshly ground pepper
1 cup ice water, or as needed
1/2 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
1/3 cup olive oil
1 pint strawberries, hulled and finely diced
1 cucumber, peeled, seeds scooped out, finely diced
generous handful of small pear or cherry tomatoes, seeds removed, finely diced
1. Combine strawberries, vegetables, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper, and ½ cup water. Stir well and refrigerate for one to three hours to let flavors blend.
2. Pour mixture into a blender and puree until smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, vinegar, or oil as needed. Add more water if gazpacho seems too thick. If desired, strain through a chinois or medium strainer for a smoother texture. Refrigerate for several hours, until thoroughly chilled.
3. While soup is chilling, make basil oil. To preserve the leaves’ bright green color, blanch basil in boiling water for 10 seconds. Drain and pat dry. Puree with oil until smooth. Cover tightly and refrigerate until needed.
4. Just before serving, dice garnish ingredients and toss together. Pour soup into small bowls or shot glasses. Top each serving with a spoonful of garnish and a few drops of basil oil.