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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ajo Blanco. The Other Gazpacho

Long before tomatoes arrived from the new world and made their way into the silken tomato-based gazpacho we're all familiar with, ajo blanco was the gazpacho of Spain. Ajo blanco (white garlic) was a simple chilled peasant soup concocted to supply nourishment to field workers and help quell the blistering heat that pounded the southern provinces of Spain. Like its red cousin, ajo blanco was created in the southern region of Andulacia, specifically Malaga. The region, rich with olive groves and moorish-influenced almonds, made ajo blanco affordable and readily available. Made with pounded almonds, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and grapes, it's referred to as the gazpacho of Malaga. Nowadays, ajo blanco has been taken out of the fields and gussied up a bit, paving the way for more refined versions to grace the tables in tapas bars throughout Spain. While elevated from its humble roots, the beauty of ajo blanco lies in its simplicity.

Garlic. Water. Bread. Olive oil. Sherry vinegar. Grapes. Peasant food. Ajo blanco. White gazpacho.

We've had a great tomato season here in Kentucky. Beautiful. Plump. Bountiful. Perfect for gazpacho. That said, while we're still in peak season for summer tomatoes, local grapes have also started to hit the farm stands. Demurely tucked in and around the brash darlings of summer, grapes don't crash the markets like thundering tomato tsunamis. They filter in quietly as they ripen and mature. Amused by their unexpected appearance, I bagged a few Graskop Farm Reliance grapes sold by Elmwood Stock and embraced the other gazpacho.

Ajo Blanco.
Without the addition of any cream, good bread provides the faux creaminess that characterizes ajo blanco. I sliced 2 fat Sunrise Bakery tear baguettes in half and ripped the soft bready guts into small pieces. When I accumulated 2 1/2 cups of torn bread, I soaked the pieces in 2 cups of iced water until they softened.

Almonds and garlic.
While the bread plumped in the water, I tumbled 2 cups of raw almonds into simmering water to blanch and help release the skins. Although raw garlic is traditionally used in ajo blanco, I wanted to temper the biting rawness, so I added 4 smashed cloves of Elmwood Stock garlic to the simmering almonds. After 45 seconds, I scooped the almonds and garlic onto a dish towel to drain. When they were cool enough to handle, I slipped the skins off of the garlic cloves and set them aside.  Instead of popping each individual skin from every individual almond, I used the dish towel as friction to slip off the skins and reveal their buttery flesh.  Who knew? Magic.

Back to the bread. I squeezed as much liquid out of the bread as possible, reserved the remaining water, and set the soggy bread aside.

Traditionally, the bread, almonds, and garlic were pounded into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Nope. Didn't happen. I dropped the bread into a food processor along with the almonds, garlic, salt, and white pepper. After adding the reserved soaking water to the processor, I blasted the mixture for 2 minutes before slowly drizzling in 1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive and 4 tablespoons of Spanish sherry vinegar.

Most folks would've left it at that. To alleviate the slight graininess from the pureed almonds, I strained the soup through a chinois and tossed it into the refrigerator to chill for several hours.

When the ajo blanco was bone cold, I poured the velvety soup into tiny parfait glasses, floated split Reliance grapes over the top, and added a few halved almonds before finishing with snipped chives from my garden.

Funny, while the unlikely combination of ingredients seemed weird, they totally worked together. The soup was deceivingly light and didn't scream garlic. Swirled through the emulsified creamy puree, faint whispers of garlic mingled with the fruity olive oil, pureed bread, buttery ground almonds, and musky tang of the sherry vinegar to create rich complex layers of flavor. While the suspended almonds added crunch, the split grapes provided pops of sweet wet freshness.

The other gazpacho.

A perfect Kentucky summer tapas.

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