Tuesday, June 30, 2009
One of the best parts of summer is making a light dinner and avoiding the stove at all costs. Walking outside to grill or eat al fresco is rare in Manhattan, so anything we city dwellers can do to keep cool indoors is a welcome feat. The all-time easiest "no-cook" summer dish is gazpacho, the classic cold soup of southern Spain that requires nothing more than a blender and 10 minutes of free time. My mother is a big fan, ordering it every chance she gets when we're down by the Mediterranean. I'll be making it soon once my tomatoes come in, but in the meantime, I've made another great cold soup. Ajo blanco is a simple but delicious cold soup of garlic, almonds and bread. Much like gazpacho, all you need is a blender and a few minutes to whip everything up. If you're a perfectionist like me, you might strain it (and you really should, for the sake of texture), but otherwise it's not a very fussy dish despite how impressive it is in the end.
The ingredients may seem strange bedfellows, but the truth is that they work quite well together. The soup is interesting and complex, almost plain at first. But with all that raw garlic (for which the dish is named), the flavor slowly builds and intensifies with every spoonful, lending a certain heat as only raw garlic can. The almonds, which are fairly sweet by nature, impart a certain milky flavor that mellows out the garlic's heat ever so gently. A dash of sherry vinegar brings a little acidity to the party, and some olive oil and crustless bread round out the main ingredients and add some silkyness to the texture. Like many cold soups, ajo blanco is a perfect way to use up day-old or even stale bread. Just remember to remove the crusts and you're good to go. Otherwise, the only thing you need is some water, which helps the ingredients to blend and thins out the whole mixture.
I used a recipe that suggested letting the almonds soak overnight in water, which helps to draw out their natural milk. The milky soaking liquid is then used in the soup. Mine didn't soak overnight, but they did get a three hour long bath that definitely helped. I liked that it softened the almonds and made them easier to blend, but this step could certainly be omitted with equally delicious results (I have at previous times and it's been no problem at all). Likewise, you could always reduce the heat of the dish by omitting a few cloves of garlic if you're worried about scaring your date away. That's not to say that the flavor is overwhelming in general. Although it builds, there comes a point where it does plateau so you're not floored by garlic or heat. In the past I've also cut the whole thing with a teaspoon or two of honey, which is not at all traditional, but very tasty and a lovely contrast to the garlic and sherry vinegar. Here's the recipe with a few of my changes:
adapted from Made in Spain by Jose Andres
1 1/2 lbs blanched almonds (I used peeled, sliced almonds)
6 cups water
2 large or 3 small garlic cloves
1/3 cup sherry vinegar (use the best you can)
2 1/2 cups good extra virgin olive oil
3 slices rustic style bread, crusts removed
1 Tbsp chopped chives
pinch of salt
1. Place almonds in a bowl and cover with the 6 cups of water. Allow to soak overnight, or for as much time as you have.
2. Add garlic, almonds, soaking liquid, sherry vinegar, olive oil and bread to blender and puree until smooth. Run mixture through a fine mesh sieve or cheese cloth to remove any grit from the ground almonds.
3. Place mixture in a pitcher or bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Stir in salt and serve garnished with olive oil, sherry vinegar and chopped chive. Enjoy!