It’s not always easy being a vegetarian in Spain. Because I also eat fish and seafood–and I live in Barcelona, which is smack on the sea–it’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. In Madrid, I would call it impossible. There is a big deli there, for instance, called El Museo del Jamón. Generally, all over Spain there is a general suspicion of those who do not follow the cult of the slaughtered cow and pig. That small club would include both my husband U.B. and me.
So, we greet with joy the discovery of an extraordinary Spanish dish that is not based on meat. And there is a family of soups whose ingredients have never been near a pig. The chilled soups are a refreshing thirst-quencher in the parched southern reaches of Spain’s Andalucia, where summer days can be broiling.
Everybody knows about gazpacho, the perfect chilled tomato-garlic-and-vegetable first course on a hot day, and in Spain it is as readily available in the local grocery store as orange juice. My family slugs it down right from the carton if we’re on the road, and it’s one of our daughter Stassa’s favorite after-school snacks. Still, nothing beats the homemade version, which is not difficult to make in either a blender or a food processor; recipes abound on the Internet. Crucial to its success is the crunch factor of the accouterments that you add when serving gazpacho at your table: diced green (or red) pepper and cucumber, little cubes of fresh tomato, and crispy croutons of bread that have been toasted with olive oil. I like a sprig of rosemary or basil in mine.
The other tomato-based soup that has not found the international fame of its cousin gazpacho is called salmorejo. A search for the etymology of the word led me nowhere, but it almost certainly has something to do with salt (“sal”) in spite of its being not exceedingly salty. When I plug the word salmorejo into Google translate, the English translation is…(fanfare): “Gazpacho!”
As far as I can tell (after hundreds of tastings), salmorejo, whose origins are in the Andalucian city of Córdoba, varies from its more famous cousin mostly in the inclusion of a higher proportion of bread amongst its ingredients, which renders the soup a slightly lighter shade of red, and considerably thicker, than your average bowl (or glass) of gazpacho. The ingredients list is also shorter, focusing on vine-ripened tomatoes, green olive oil, garlic and bread. It is often garnished with cubes of ham and hard boiled egg.
An unsung cousin to the red chilled soups is little known outside of Andalusia, and almost completely unheard of outside of Spain. The secret of the creamy white, refreshingly chilled ajo blanco or “white gazpacho” summer soup seems to be well guarded.
U.B. and I first discovered ajo blanco in the swank restaurant of one of Spain’s most charming paradores, a converted fourteenth-century Moorish castle in Carmona, outside of Seville. Since my lactose-tolerance is not high, I at first shied away from the white soup in spite of U.B.’s swooning response to it. Only after asking the waiter, “Que es esto?” and hearing the list of ingredients, did I dive in and become a life-long fan.
Ajo blanco is more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ingredients at first seem to be seriously at odds with each other: Bread. Almonds. Olive oil. Grapes. Vinegar. And of course garlic (ajo).
Here is a recipe, freely adapted from a version that I found at EPICURIOUS.COM:
Toast several slices of country bread without its crusts and soak in a cup of ice water.
Toast about a dozen sliced almonds in a skillet until golden, then grind them in a processor with one clove of garlic.
Squeeze the bread dry and add it to the almond/garlic mixture, along with half a pound of seedless green grapes.
Process until smooth then put it into a bowl and mix it together with 3 Tbsp. of wine vinegar, a half cup of extra virgin olive oil and two cups of ice water.
Strain it through a sieve, forcing as much bread through as possible. Add salt and cayenne pepper, and chill well, at least one hour.
Serve the soup with freshly toasted croutons and more green seedless grapes, cut in half. I know it sounds weird, but trust me.
Once while traveling around the south of Spain, we came across a thicker, dip-like version of ajo blanco, which is usually a rather thin soup. Quite a surprise and just as yummy.
For those of you who follow me on Twitter or Instagram you would have noticed I am obsessed with making focaccia bread. Not to mention, it’s that time of year when you just want to stay indoors and stuff your face with carbohydrates.
In regards to this recipe, I blame a lot of my mishaps on my oven, but the truth is, when it comes to baking, I’m just not very good. When I cook, I don’t measure. I go my feel, taste and eye. So believe it or not, the hardest part about writing a cookbook (www.daretotaste.com) is writing down the measurements.
I have made this bread literally 15 times in the past month, and I firmly believe I finally got it right. Jumping ahead, I only like tomatoes and shallots on my focaccia. Whereas my mother, however, loves black olives and artichokes. So feel free to add your own spin on this recipe. I’m just a simple girl who likes simple flavors.
2 CUPS WATER, WARM – ABOUT 110°
2 TEASPOONS YEAST, DRY
41/2 CUPS ALL PURPOSE FLOUR
3 TABLESPOONS OLIVE OIL
2 TEASPOONS SALT
2 SHALLOTS, CHOPPED
3 TOMATOES, SLICED OR CHOPPED
1 TABLESPOON FRESH ROSEMARY
1 TABLESPOON FRESH THYME
In a large bowl (or mixer), combine the yeast with the warm water. Let rest for about 15 minutes before stirring. Add the flour, salt and flour. If you dot have a mixer, kneed for 10 minutes until the dough reaches a soft consistency.
Form the dough into a tight ball, coat with olive oil and return to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let double in size… about an hour.
Once the dough has doubled in size, deflate and let rise again for another hour. Once it’s risen, place the dough on a baking sheet lined with olive oil. With your fingers, massage the dough creating small indentations. These will become little pockets of flavor once the bread is seasoned.
In a small skillet, sauté the two shallots in olive oil until soft.
Once the dough is fully massaged, make sure the top is covered with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, rosemary and thyme. Follow with the shallots and tomatoes or any other toppings of your choice.
Cover the dough in the pan and let rest for at least another 30-45 minutes until it’s risen once again.
Bake at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes until the top and bottom are lightly browned.
My husband’s very favorite pasta sauce is also one of the world’s simplest. We both fell in love with this Roman specialty, a creamy twirl of fresh pasta, hot with crushed black pepper, during our time in residence at the American Academy in Rome, after a friend introduced us to the charms of the old Jewish Ghetto. There, on the Piazza delle Cinque Scuole, behind an unmarked door at number 30, is one of the smallest trattorias in the city, Sora Margherita.
You need to become a “member” of Sora Margherita because of local licensing, but this essentially means filling in a form. We were introduced in this loud and crowded little watering hole to the simple marvel that is pasta cacio e pepe. The cooks at Sora Margherita serve it over a delectable egg tonnarelli (a variation on long, flat fettucine), but any long pasta will do. The quality of the pasta is as important as the freshness of the few ingredients.
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Former chef turned restaurateur, Steve DiFillippo is Boston’s food aficionado and hospitality guru. When he’s not selling his popular spring rolls on QVC or appearing on “The Today Show” or the like, the owner of the Davio’s Restaurant Group is traveling around the country and inspiring other restaurateurs with the art of hospitality.
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