The first time I tasted ajo blanco, Spain’s white gazpacho, I was surprised. Surprised that as a fan of the better-known tomato gazpacho and a lover of Spanish food generally, I had somehow missed this elegant little number. Surprised that it was so creamy without any dairy products. And surprised at how simple it was to make - and how impressive to serve.
That was almost 15 years ago, when Boston chef Gabriel Frasca showed me his version of the classic, blended from almonds, bread, olive oil, sherry vinegar and garlic - and garnished with more almonds and purple chive blossoms. Since then, I’ve made it dozens of times, sticking pretty closely to the traditional recipe for the base and playing around with the garnishes. In Spain, the usual topping is green grapes, but when other produce is in season, I don’t hesitate to use it.
Anya von Bremzen, author of one of my most dog-eared cookbooks, “The New Spanish Table” (Workman, 2005), writes that taking liberties with the garnishes is in perfect keeping with modern interpretations of the dish in its homeland. Her recipe includes baby lettuces, fresh figs and edible flowers, but I couldn’t resist adding toasted sliced almonds for crunch and subbing in fresh red cherries for the figs. They’re a classic partner to almonds, and their burst of tart sweetness offsets the garlicky soup beautifully.
And then there’s the look. The colorful garnishes are striking against the pale soup - even more so if you serve the soup from a pitcher, pouring it around the garnishes already in each bowl at the table, restaurant-style. It’s a simple touch that will make your guests smile, before they’ve had a single spoonful.
ALMOND GAZPACHO WITH CHERRIES AND FLOWERS
6 servings (makes 4 cups)
This cold soup, popular in Spain’s Malaga province, uses no tomatoes or other vegetables, making it especially pantry-friendly. It’s classically finished with grapes, but as Anya von Bremzen writes, modern chefs use it as a blank canvas, especially when it comes to garnishes. Here, those include baby lettuces, fresh cherries and edible flowers, but let your imagination - and the market - be your guide. It’s important to use high-quality olive oil and sherry vinegar, to keep the flavor smooth and not harsh.
Make Ahead: For best flavor, cover and refrigerate the soup for at least 2 hours before serving.
About 5 ounces day-old country bread (crusts removed), cubed (2 1/2 cups)
1 cup slivered almonds
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
1 1/2 cups chilled bottled still spring water, or more as needed
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, preferably aged, or more as needed
2 cups lightly packed baby lettuces, preferably of different colors, for serving
1/2 cup chive blossoms or other edible ﬂowers, broken into petals, for serving
1 cup sweet cherries, pitted and halved, for serving
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted, for serving
Place the bread in a large mixing bowl and add enough cold water to cover. Let soak for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain the bread, squeezing out the excess liquid, then crumble the soaked bread into a blender.
Add the almonds, garlic, salt and 1 cup water to the blender and puree until a smooth paste forms. With the blender running at the highest speed, drizzle the olive oil through the feed tube until emulsified. Add the vinegar and remaining 1/2 cup water, blend briefly, and check the consistency: It should be that of very thick cream or very thin mayonnaise. Add more water, if needed, to thin it out slightly. Taste for seasoning, and add more vinegar and/or salt as needed.
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Transfer the soup to a pitcher. It will be delicious if you serve immediately, but if you have time, refrigerate it, covered, for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to develop.
To serve, pile small heaps of the lettuce in the middle of six soup bowls and top each with flower petals, cherries and a sprinkle of the toasted almonds. Bring the pitcher to the table and pour the soup around the garnish in each bowl.
NOTE: Toast the almonds in a small dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
Nutrition | Calories: 310; Total Fat: 24 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 240 mg; Carbohydrates: 21 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 7 g.
Source: Adapted from “The New Spanish Table,” by Anya von Bremzen. Workman, 2005.)