A refreshing plunge into ajo blanco

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A cold soup made from bread, nuts, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and water? This sounds more like something you’d make after cleaning your pantry than, well, on purpose. But one taste of Andalusia’s tantalizing ajo blanco can turn a skeptic into a serious enthusiast. When the blinding sun and afternoon heat have left you wilted, it’s cool and soothing, redolent of sweet almonds, olives and aged sherry vinegar. It’s easy to understand why this dish has played a part in Spanish cuisine for hundreds of years.

The name means white garlic, but the garlic presence is exquisitely subtle. The consistency is similar to light cream, coating the palate with the milky taste of blanched almonds livened with a splash of good sherry vinegar and smoothed out with fruity green-gold olive oil. In Granada, people often eat the soup with a roasted potato. Weird, but true.

The soup is an inheritance of the Moorish-Arabic cooking in the almost seven centuries (711 to 1492) that the Moors ruled over parts of Spain. That’s well before the tomato ever showed up there, so this soup predates the more familiar gazpacho, which is built around that New World fruit.

In Andalusia, the almond soup is so beloved that there’s an ajo blanco festival in Almachar, near Malaga on the Costa del Sol, on the first Saturday of every September. On a sweltering summer day, white gazpacho tastes luxurious and refreshing. And it’s incredibly easy to make, provided you have a powerful blender.

One of the best recipes comes from Spanish chef Jose Andres’ cookbook “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America.” He garnishes his soup Malaga-style with grapes and almonds. In Madrid, chef Juanjo Lopez makes his ajo blanco as part of a tasting menu at the nearly 50-year-old Madrid restaurant La Tasquita de Enfrente. Lopez’s version is garnished with diced pear and boquerones, or vinegar-marinated white anchovies. That extra hit of vinegar paired with the gentle ripeness of the pears is genius.

One thing to consider: If you have a less than super-efficient blender, you might have to blend the soup several times and pass it through a sieve in the end in order to get the velvety-smooth texture that is the hallmark of this dish. If the soup seems too thick, thin with more water to the consistency of light cream.

With just a handful of ingredients, you can put a dish on the table that goes back to the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus in southern Spain. And is pretty great at beating the heat too.

 

Ajo Blanco

45 minutes, plus chilling time. Serves 4 to 6.

Adapted from Ajo blanco Malagueno (almond, garlic and grapes gazpacho) in “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America” by Jose Andres with Richard Wolffe.

2 cups water

7 ounces blanched almonds

1 garlic clove, peeled

3 cups mineral or spring water

3 ounces white bread

½ cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

8 boquerones (vinegar-marinated anchovies), cut in ½-inch pieces

1 pear, peeled and cut in ½-inch dice

Combine 1 cup of water, the almonds and the garlic in a medium pot and bring to a boil. When the water reaches a boil, drain.

Pour a fresh cup of water into the pot and add the drained almonds and garlic; bring to a boil. Drain once again. By now the garlic will have lost much of its strength and the almonds will be softened.

Place the garlic and almonds in a blender. Add the mineral water, bread, olive oil, vinegar and salt. Blend until smooth.

Place a colander over a large bowl and line it with cheesecloth. Pour the soup into the colander. Once most of the liquid has passed through the colander, gather the cheesecloth around the remaining solids and squeeze gently to release as much liquid as possible from the solids. Discard the solids.

Pour the soup into a pitcher and chill for at least 30 minutes (several hours is even better). Before serving, if necessary, thin the soup with water to the consistency of cream.

Divide the boquerones into four or six portions. Serve the soup in small soup bowls garnished in the middle with a tablespoon of diced pear and the boquerones, and a swirl of olive oil.

Note: The idea for the garnish comes from the Madrid restaurant La Tasquita de Enfrente. If you have the time, Andres suggests soaking the almonds overnight in mineral water to cover. It helps bring out the almond’s natural milk, he says.