06 September 2007

For Summer, Not Quite Gone, Already Missed

It seems another season is slipping away before I’ve had a chance to savour it fully. Summer, with your warm sun, your flip-flops, your sweaty brows, your picnics in the park, your corn and tomatoes, I just need a little more time. Yes, I know that the season lasts another three weeks, but just the word September is enough to send shivers down my spine. September says school and work and back to the daily grind. It’s enough to make me pack up my pencil boxes and Hello Kitty folders and head back to school.

How could it be that as someone who writes about food, I haven’t even gotten around to telling you about the vegetables I grew in pots this summer: the tiny sweet 100 tomatoes almost candy-like in their sweetness, the Brandywines and Mr. Stripeys, the Ichiban eggplants and peppers and purple basil. Oh sure, we ate our fill of corn and crabs and squash, but as the end of August approached, I realized I hadn’t even made my ajo blanco, my white gazpacho. I had talked frequently about this chilled garlic soup, telling friends about how I had to make it every summer, and yet I still hadn’t done it.

If you told someone that this beloved summer dish was a soup made from garlic, almonds, and stale bread, and served with green grapes, they might raise a skeptical eyebrow. However, ajo blanco is a traditional Spanish dish , one of the many varieties of gazpacho, or chilled smooth soups. It is creamy, redolent of garlic and accented by the bright pop of grapes, a combination of tastes and textures that make it one of the most refreshing things I can think of on a hot day. The first time I made it several years ago, I loved it so much I ate it for breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately, the garlic had intensified overnight to nearly dragon-breath strength and I went off to a 3 hour dance rehearsal with a taste in my mouth no mint or gum could mask.

Since my unfortunate garlic-breath incident, I’ve come up with a solution that keeps all my favorite qualities of ajo blanco without the pungency: roasted garlic. Roasting the garlic imbues the dish with a mellow flavor, and enables you to use a lot more: one whole head per serving! In fact, if you make the soup with only roasted garlic, you won’t even taste the garlic at all, so I reserve one raw garlic clove for a bit of accent. And while I obviously think ajo blanco is good any time of day, I do have a favorite way of serving it: for a full menu, pair it with simple shrimp skewers and a green frisee salad.

In fact, it’s this entire meal that says summer to me, pulling the shrimp off the skewers, dipping them into the creamy soup, the pleasant crunch of lettuce. We still have a good few weeks of summer left, my sweet 100 tomato plant is still producing, the sun doesn’t set until after eight. So I’m holding on to what’s left, the last of the tomatoes and plums, a few more dinners with chilled soup and twilight in the background, I’m milking it for all it’s worth.

Ajo Blanco (White Gazpacho)
This chilled soup of almonds and garlic is a summer staple in my house. Don’t be alarmed by the amount of garlic, roasting tames any of it’s pungency. I like to serve ajo blanco with shrimp and a nice frisee salad.

1/4 cup olive oil
4 heads garlic
2 stale crusty rolls or one 5” hunk of baguette
1 cup whole almonds
3 tbl sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
pinch salt
1/2 cup green grapes, halved

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut off the top third of the garlic heads, so the tips of the cloves are exposed. Separate one small garlic clove and set aside. Choose a small baking dish or oven-proof pot and pour in the olive oil, place the garlic heads cut side down and cover the dish tightly with foil. Bake 40-45 minutes, until the garlic is tender. Set aside to cool.
2. Tear the bread into chunks, place in a bowl and cover with cold water to soak. Place the almonds in a food processor and pulse until finely ground (I usually make this soup in my blender, in which case I grind the almonds in a coffee grinder first, then add them to the blender). Take the garlic heads (don’t discard the oil they were in) and squeeze the cloves out into the blender jar. Add the reserved raw garlic clove, squeeze the water from the bread, and add bread to the processor, pulse to combine. Add the vinegar and salt, then drizzle in some of the reserved olive oil and blend until a smooth paste forms. Thin the soup with the water to desired consistency.
3. Chill the soup for in the refrigerator until serving (if it thickens, thin it with more water before serving). Ladle the cold soup into bowls, and sprinkle with the green grapes.

Make a Meal of It: Serve the ajo blanco with shrimp skewers and a green salad. Thread shrimp onto skewers (leftover chopsticks also work) and rub with a little olive oil, salt, and red pepper. Sear the shrimp on a preheated grill/grill pan, until plump and pink. I like to make a frisee with an anchovy dressing on the side.


Anonymous said...

It seems that white gazpachos are popular this time of year. I've been reading about a lot of them - this one looks great! And about garlic, I think I can only tolerate it when it's roasted ;)

Sandi said...

My husband will L-O-V-E that. Thanks.

Dolores said...

I love the stories behind your recipes Mercedes. And I look forward to trying this one soon.

Hilda said...

I'm always looking for other variations on white bean soup and this looks wonderful, and I can totally sympathize with the dragon breath, that has happened to me too... ;)

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Mercedes, what a beauty this one is, and the roasted garlic is a stroke of genius! I forgot you danced. When I first discovered how to roast garlic, I was dancing. I ate so much one night that my teacher wouldn't come near me at the barre the next day. He finally blurted out "Who is that? Who's been eating garlic?" It takes an awful lot of roasted garlic to get you you to smell that badly. Yikes!

Mercedes said...

Hillary- yes! I've seen many versions online also, which finally propelled me to get around to making my own.

Sandi- ah, sounds like you've got a good partner in eating!

dolores- thanks, i do think the story/sentiment can be as important as the recipe

hilda- hmmm, except this soup doesn't contain white beans, and i think the flavor/texture is very different so hopefully it will fulfil the variety you're looking for!

amanda- ah, yes, many years spent at the barre. Although I don't think a dance instructor ever called me out for smelling of garlic- that's quite a claim to fame!
I did have several Russian balletomames tell me to put poultices of vodka on my bruised toes though.....

SteamyKitchen said...

Love your stories!!! It's funny to hear people say "almost end of summer" because here in Florida, it will still be 80 degrees in November. Which is so weird!

Mandy said...

I have never tried gazpachos before, yours certainly will be on the top of my to-try-list. I am sad that summer is almost gone too. :( So long, summer berries~