Story and pictures by Manos Angelakis

Extremadura Toasting Blanched Almonds

Cold Summer Soups

When the summer heat starts to make the days unbearably hot, two tasty cold soups, Gazpacho Andaluz and Ajoblanco. are what every self-respecting Spanish housewife, as well as most restaurant chefs, reach for. Those two cold dishes, and afternoon siesta which is still vigorously observed in Southern Spain, make the hot weather bearable.    

Ripe tomatoes, mild white onion, cucumber, green and red pepper, extra virgin olive oil, white sherry vinegar, salt and a soupçon of garlic; put them together in a blender with a little ice-cold water and turn them into a refreshing recipe that uses easy-to-come-by seasonal vegetables that are very nutritious with high levels of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. These ingredients are what go into a traditional Andalusian gazpacho, a dish that has been popular in the south of Spain for quite a while. But, of course, most cooks have their own versions of this soup, many times handed down from grand mothers and great-grandmothers. You could also find gazpachos in regions other than Andalusia that also traditionally include cooked shredded chicken or hard-cooked and diced eggs and even shredded rabbit meat, which is a classic ingredient in Southern Extremadura.

With the Ajoblanco soup, you leave the bright colors of summer vegetables behind and move on, to ivory, off white tones. Ajoblanco is a cold soup made with very lightly toasted almonds, white bread soaked in water, extra virgin olive oil, good white sherry wine vinegar, garlic, and salt. All you need is a blender or food processor. I have a recipe from a cooking school in Cáceres, Extremadura, where a little cold whole milk or cream is added to lightly dilute this tasty soup and give it the right consistency. 

Given the correct proportion of ingredients, both soups are simple and quick, and need only chilling in the refrigerator to reach the desired temperature. They can be served as a first course, as an appetizer in glasses, or as a refreshing mid-afternoon snack. Either of the soups, some freshly baked bread and a glass of cold fino sherry capture the essence of culinary simplicity and good health for an exceptional summer meal.

Ajo Blanco in Cocktail Glass

Ajoblanco

Traditionally, ajoblanco was made with a mortar and pestle and the bread used was usually stale and soaked in cold water, which is a recurrent way to not let anything go to waste in a Spanish pantry. Nowadays, high speed blenders or food processors considerably reduce the amount of work and also give the soup a lovely smooth texture, as well as doing a great job of emulsifying the oil and water.

Ingredients:

3 or 4 medium garlic cloves
5 slices stale white bread – crusts removed
2 cups blanched almonds
4 cups ice-cold filtered water - divided
½ cucumber, peeled and de-seeded
½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 or 3 tbsp Sherry Vinegar
Salt and white pepper to taste

Western Spain Variation: 2 cups whole milk or 1½ cup light cream as substitute for second half of divided cold water.

To serve:

1 tbsp flaked almonds
24 seedless green grapes, peeled and halved (very few cooks peel the grapes nowadays).
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Method:

Put the almonds in a dry frying pan and fry over medium heat. Shake regularly and watch very closely. Remove from the heat as soon as the almonds start to take some color.

Repeat with the flaked almonds and reserve them for garnish. Do not allow almonds to burn.

Cover the bread with half the water and soak for 10 minutes until softened. Drain and squeeze out the water.

Put the whole almonds into a food processor or blender. Add the bread and process until the almonds are finely ground. Add the garlic and cucumber and continue, then drizzle in the rest of the water, the olive oil and half the vinegar.

Season with salt and white pepper, then drizzle in a little more vinegar if you think it needs it. The soup should be very smooth – if it seems grainy, push it through a fine sieve.

Transfer to a bowl or jug, cover and chill for two hours.

To serve, ladle into bowls and top with the flaked almonds, peeled grapes and a drizzle of olive oil or fill a cocktail glass and drizzle olive oil on top.

Gazpacho Andaluz

Gazpacho Andaluz

Ingredients:

2 lbs ripe red tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 cubanelle pepper or another long green pepper, cored, seeded and chunked
½ sweet red pepper (capsicum) cored, seeded and roughly chunked
1 cucumber or preferably kirby (minimum 7 inches long), peeled, seeded and chunked
1 mild onion, white or red, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
1 or 2 large garlic cloves 
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, more to taste
Salt and white pepper, to taste
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling.

Method:

Combine tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, onion and garlic in a blender or food processor. Blend at high speed until very smooth, at least 2 minutes, pausing occasionally to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula.

With the motor running, add the vinegar, 1 ½ teaspoons salt (or more to taste) and white pepper. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil. The mixture will turn bright orange or light pink and become smooth and emulsified. If it still seems watery, drizzle in more olive oil until the texture is creamy.

Transfer to a large pitcher and chill until very cold, at least 6 hours or overnight.

Before serving, adjust the seasonings with salt and sherry vinegar. I have a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar flavored with mint and sometimes I use that, instead of the sherry vinegar. If soup is very thick, stir in a few tablespoons of iced water. Serve in glasses, over ice if desired, or in a bowl. Add few drops of olive oil on top.

If soup is served in a bowl top with small dice of cucumber and tomato. A few cooks add croûtons but, unless they are freshly prepared, I don’t think they add much to the taste unless they have shredded cheese added when fried.

Southern Andaluz Variation: Add a pinch or two of cumin and leave half the skin of the cucumber on for better color.

 

 

 

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