Gazpacho and Sesame Chicken (but not the way you think)

For the second time in two weeks, we’re eating Greek here at “Table for Two?”. Well, sort of.

I won’t pretend for a millisecond that there is anything traditional or authentic about this meal. Its got a little bit of an identity crisis going on. “Gazpacho… isn’t that a Mexican soup?” Well, yes, but this one isn’t. “Sesame chicken? Sounds like Chinese takeout.” It does, doesn’t it? But its not. “You’re calling this Greek? I’ve never seen a Greek meal like that.” No, I’d imagine you wouldn’t have, but wait, just WAIT till you taste it.

Lets start with the chicken, shall we? Really, this couldn’t be simpler. J was inspired by a recipe for “Tahini Turkey Thighs” in the Better Homes & Gardens New Grilling Book, a birthday gift from my parents last year. Their recipe was heavily influenced by Asian cuisine and called for things like soy sauce and rice vinegar, which I’m sure would be good as well but wasn’t what we were in the mood for. So he simplified the recipe significantly and made a few subtle changes to swing the dish around from Asia to the Mediterranean, ending up with a marinade of only five ingredients: tahini, toasted sesame oil, honey, and S&P. And substituted chicken. Because frankly, as much as we love turkey, we really felt that this NEEDED to be chicken.

I can’t speak for the quality of the original recipe, but J’s take on it was delicious. The tahini in the marinade created a really fantastic crust on the outside when the chicken was cooked, and kept the inside moist and tender. The sesame flavor was made even more prominent by the addition of the toasted sesame oil, with just the barest hint of honey sweetness. Next time I think I’d squeeze a bit of fresh lemon over the chicken after cooking, just to further balance out the flavor, but as it stands it was savory and aromatic and wonderful.

The soup was, I think, a bit of a revelation for J and a proof of concept for me: gazpacho can, in fact be GOOD, and it doesn’t have to be Mexican.

Gazpacho is something that always sounds really great to me in theory, but always disappoints in reality. I mean, I really can’t imagine anything more summery and refreshing than a bowl of cold, fresh tomato soup, but anytime I’ve ever eaten it or made it myself I have really not liked it at all. But recently I had a wonderful lunch at Grayz in Manhattan during NYC Restaurant Week 2008, and my first course was essentially a gazpacho with an Italian twist. Chef Kuntz called it “Two Tomato Coulis with Three Basils”, but whatever it was called it absolutely blew my mind. What struck me most was how simple, natural, and fresh the tomato flavor was – it was obvious there was very little in this soup other than the tomatoes themselves, with the upper flavor notes provided by a fresh garnish of chiffonade basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil. I absolutely had to learn to make it myself.

Further research showed that the soup was just as simple as it seemed – basically its just a bunch of tomatoes all whizzed up in a blender with some garlic, salt, sugar, and white pepper. Thinking about that, I realized that what I don’t like about other gazpachos is the other ingredients that get added; the bell pepper, cucumber, onions, jalapeno, and whatever else just cover up the flavor of the tomatoes. The fact that I’ve never been a big fan of cucumbers probably doesn’t help, but for whatever reason it never really occurred to me to leave them out. I almost never follow recipes as-written, but I just never thought about altering this one. I know, it makes no sense to me either. I was tempted to smack myself in the forehead once I figured this out, but was afraid J might think there was something wrong with me.

Anyway, moving on.

I’m going to include the recipe here, because the soup was delicious and I savored every bite just the way it was. However, I think I could execute it better and really clarify the flavors into something much simpler and cleaner on the next go-around, so expect to see this recipe revisited probably in the very near future..

Greek Gazpacho with Fregula Sarda
Fregula sarda (sometimes spelled fregola) is an Italian pasta variety from Sardinia (I know, even MORE of an identity crisis – this poor soup must be so confused). It looks rather like Israeli couscous, but the “grains” are toasted rather than simply dried, providing a distinctly nutty flavor to the cooked pasta. I used them here mainly to add some textural complexity, which worked really well. Its not something that is particularly easy to come by, though, so you could substitute in orzo pasta, rice, or Israeli couscous, or leave it out entirely – it won’t affect the flavor of the soup either way.

And yes, I used canned tomatoes for this (for shame!) because they were all I had on hand. Obviously that’s something I would change next time around.

1 14oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock or water
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp each fresh chopped oregano and rosemary
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
1 pepperoncini pepper, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup green olives, chopped
1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1/4 cup fregula sarda
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

Toppings: fresh lemon juice, crumbled feta, chopped fresh parsley, and good extra virgin olive oil

To make the fregula sarda: heat the stock or water to boiling in a saucepan. Add the fregula and stir to keep the grains from sticking, then cover and cook for 10-15 minutes or until most of the water liquid has been absorbed and the grains are tender. Remove from heat and set aside – the grains will continue to soak up mist of the liquid that is left. If you like, you can rinse them in a colander before serving to remove any residual starches, but I didn’t bother.

To make the soup: place all ingredients except for the lemon, feta, and parsley into another saucepan and stir to combine. Place over medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so, or until all of the components are soft enough to blend. Remove from heat and either puree right in the pan with an immersion blender (my favorite method) or pour into a standing blender and puree until smooth. The mix could then be strained through a sieve or tammis for a super-smooth product, but again, I didn’t bother. Taste for seasoning – I found that my soup needed no salt at all and just a bit of fresh-cracked black pepper. White pepper would also be a good option, but I didn’t have any fresh.

Pour the finished soup base into a sealable container (or into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap) and chill for at least an hour. You don’t want this to be ice cold, but you don’t want it warm either.

To serve, divide the soup base between two bowls. Gently spoon half the cooked fregula sarda into the middle of each bowl, then top with a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkling of feta and parsley, and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Notes for next time: Aside from the fresh vs. canned tomatoes thing, I would like to simplify the soup base a bit by removing the olives and using them instead as a garnish when serving. The rosemary may have been unnecessary, so I think I’d omit it completely. I’d also like to cut out the cooking process, which I think will be a necessity if I use fresh tomatoes, so I’m expecting to need to strain the soup next time around to get rid of any little bits of the tougher ingredients (thinking of the pepperoncini here) that won’t break down into the soup without cooking. Other changes may present themselves when I try this again that I can’t anticipate right now, but we’ll see.

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