On a July afternoon when the heat index hit 103° in Alexandria, Va., executive chef Brian McPherson reflected on dishes made for cool summertime enjoyment.
“When it is hot like today, it’s important to have foods that are refreshing and lighter and cleaner in flavor,” said McPherson, culinary helmsman of The Grille at Morrison House and Jackson 20 in the Hotel Monaco, a pair of Kimpton Restaurants in town. “You want to eat simple things that make you feel good.”
McPherson’s popular summer specialty at The Grille, Garden Tomato Gazpacho with Green Tomato Jam, Sea Salt Ice Cream and Rooftop Basil, is a case in point.
His version of the traditional Spanish cold soup begins with a rough chop of local heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, sweet red candy onions and fresh thyme. They marinate overnight in olive oil, sherry vinegar and lemon juice in the cooler to let the flavors blend and concentrate. The following day they are pureed, strained and chilled.
Silky on the palate and vibrantly flavored, the soup is presented at the table in a rustic French cast iron vessel and poured into a bowl prepped with a scoop of housemade Sea Salt Ice Cream and a dab of Green Tomato Jam. A chunk of rustic grilled baguette and a sprig of basil from the hotel’s rooftop garden complete the effect.
“I love gazpacho,” says McPherson. “It brightens your day. A cold bowl just makes you feel good in the summertime.”
Q: What is the thinking behind the intriguing Sea Salt Ice Cream in the Tomato Gazpacho?
A: Well, I like to put salt on my tomato before I eat it. Because this is a savory ice cream, there is less sugar in it than there would be in a dessert. The sea salt has to be added to taste so that it balances the custard.
Q: How important are local, seasonal ingredients to your cooking?
A: I like to cook locally. So I frequently call around to farmers to find out what’s growing. You develop a kind of communication and rapport with farmers as time goes by. I call them and ask, “What do you have now that’s good?”
I also have gardens on the roofs of both hotels here where I am growing tomatoes, corn, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, lemon balm and lemon grass. You can’t really sustain the whole restaurant with what we’re growing, but it gives us inspiration for our plates.
Q: What are some other popular cold summer items at The Grille?
A: We have a chilled vegetable terrine with toasted farro salad, classic steak tartare and salmon tartare and cheese and charcuterie. However, I would say that for me, there is no season for tartare. We keep them on year round.