Gutsy, garlicky gazpacho may be more famous internationally, but quieter, creamier ajo blanco is my soup of choice when the temperature soars past the point where solid food appeals. Almonds have been a staple in sunny Andalusia since they were introduced by the Romans, and here they combine with stale bread to make an unlikely, but uniquely refreshing light lunch or starter.
Prep 20 min
Chill 2 hr
220g blanched almonds (see step 1)
100g slightly stale white bread, crusts removed
A splash of milk, or almond milk (optional)
600ml ice-cold water
4 smallish garlic cloves
200ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to finish
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 Skin the nuts (if need be)
You really need blanched, peeled almonds for this soup, unless you don’t mind if it’s more beige-o than blanco. If you’ve got only skin-on nuts, put them in a heatproof bowl and pour over boiling water to cover. Leave to sit for a minute, then drain, run under cold water and pop each nut out of its papery jacket.
2 Toast the nuts
Loth as you may be to use the stove on a hot day, a very brief toasting will help to bring out the flavour of the nuts. Set a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and, once it’s hot, add the nuts and cook, shaking regularly, until they just begin to colour. Tip out and leave to cool completely.
3 Soak the bread
Set aside 20g of the cooled toasted nuts to use as a garnish. Soak the bread in just enough milk or cold water to cover it for about 10 minutes – almond milk is a nice touch here, not least because it makes the soup vegan-friendly, but ordinary will do. If you do use a plant-based milk, however, make sure it’s unsweetened.
4 Blitz the nuts and bread
Put the remaining 200g almonds in a blender or a powerful food processor. Squeeze as much the liquid from the bread as you can back into the bowl, then roughly tear the soggy bread into the blender. Add a splash of the soaking liquid, then whizz, scraping down the bowl regularly, for a minute or so, until the nuts are fairly finely ground.
5 Add the water, garlic and cucumber
With the motor running, slowly pour in the ice-cold water. Peel and roughly chop the garlic, removing the green sprout from the middle, if necessary (this is particularly important when you’re using garlic raw, because the sprout is unpleasantly bitter), and peel and roughly chop the cucumber.
Add the garlic, cucumber, oil and vinegar to the blender and blitz again until smooth.
6 Season, then chill
At this point, if you’d like a really silky end result, you can pass the soup through a fine sieve, but I don’t generally bother. Season to taste with salt (if you’d like to use pepper, the white variety is preferable), then chill for at least two hours if you can – this soup really tastes best properly cold, rather than at room temperature.
7 Ladle into bowls and garnish with grapes
The soup will keep in the fridge for up to two days, though it may separate and need whisking to bring it back together before serving. To serve, divide the soup between shallow bowls. Cut the grapes into quarters, removing the seeds if necessary, and roughly chop the remaining almonds. Arrange these on top of the soup, and finish each bowl with an artistic drizzle of oil.
8 Variations on the theme
If you’re serving this as a standalone dish, you may prefer to offer a few more garnishes. Some suggestions: matchsticks of tangy green apple, plump sultanas, aromatic chunks of ripe melon, cubes of membrillo (AKA quince cheese), fresh mint leaves, chilli oil, delicate rings of grassy jalapeño, crumbled fried chorizo … I like to put a selection on the table and let everyone mix and match themselves.
9 Or serve as a sauce
Ajo blanco also works well as a sauce, though if you choose to use it as such, you may wish to increase the seasoning, particularly the garlic, and reduce the liquid content. It goes particularly well with grilled white fish and seafood, chargrilled baby leeks or courgettes, or roast peppers, making it ideal for barbecues when something a little more sophisticated than ketchup is required.