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Ajo Blanco/ Sopa de Ajo / White Garlic Gazpacho, And An All-White Photography Exercise

Posted Sep 30 2012 12:00am

Ajo Blanco is a Spanish cold soup from the regions of Granada and Malaga (Andalusia). “Ajo” is Spanish for garlic and “Blanco” means white, so this soup is essentially white and garlicky. It is a more traditional recipe than the “red” gazpacho because it was made in Spain long before tomatoes arrived at its shores from the Americas.
Ajo Blanco requires no cooking and originally was a poor man’s meal and made with only bread, garlic, oil, and water.  Andalusia  is an almond and olive producing area of Spain so it was but natural to incorporate these easily available and affordable ingedients  into the soup. Stale bread was soaked in water to soften it and then blended with crushed almonds, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, water and salt.
Ajo Blanco is always served chilled, usually with grapes, melon or baked potato on the side. One normally thinks of soup as a healthy, light-in-calorie and filling sort of dish. Ajo Blanco feels light on the palate and is pretty filling, but is quite rich. However, one must remember this was originally a poor man’s meal, and really a meal in itself, so those calories would have made all the difference.
(Taken at aperture - f/3.5 , shutterspeed - 3.2s  and ISO 100)
Over time, and depending on who was making it, the Ajo Blanco has taken on newer incarnations. Many recipes have the grapes being incorporated into the soup itself. Many others add cucumber to it making it even more suitable as a summer-time soup. I even saw one recipe which used cauliflower! Apparently there is no hard and fast rule to make it except that it should have bread, almonds, olive oil, some vinegar and salt. You can even decide if you would like to leave it creamy like soup or a bit watery so you can drink it straight from a glass! It not summer here, though the days are warm enough to warrant a chilled soup, especially if you’re not in the mood to do much cooking. It’s also not the season for grapes of any sort right now, yet the Ajo Blanco came to my mind because of Simone. She has a monthly photography challenge on her blog , and this month’s challenge was to photograph food using an all-white theme, that is white would be the predominant colour scheme with a touch of another colour to provide a contrast, if necessary. The rest of the challenge was open to interpretation.

(Taken at aperture - f/3.2 , shutterspeed - 1.3s and ISO 100)

I wanted to do this if I had the time, and as usual I just made the deadline. So, as I was saying, I was thinking of white coloured food. I had initially planned on baking cookies, but my new oven just died on me a week back, and will mostly take a couple of weeks to be revived, so there was no baking to be done. Then I remembered the “White Gazpacho” which seemed perfect. After much perusal of various recipes, I decided to make a white chilled soup with my own variations on the ingredients. It’s probably not a true Ajo Blanco, because it has a lot more ingredients to it, but this is my take on the soup. I used apple instead of grapes, and lemon juice instead of sherry or wine vinegar as the only vinegar I had was white and apple cider.  I also used some cauliflower because I wanted to cut down on the flavour/ taste of cucumber. My Ajo Blanco is perhaps not so much “Ajo” but we don’t like too much of garlic. I have to say that in India, the Ajo Blanco is definitely a rich man’s soup given that almonds, sherry/ wine vinegar and olive oil are quite expensive.

Like a lot of traditional recipes Ajo Blanco also leaves a lot of room to personalize it to suit one’s taste. So my recipe is really just a set of directions which you can adjust or change to make your own version of what you would like to eat. At the end of the day, isn’t that what good food is all about?
  This post is also about a food photography challenge. As I mentioned above, the subject of the challenge is an “ all-white theme ”. This can be a bit of a challenge because if everything in your composition is white, where is the contrast between the various elements in your composition going to come from? This also means the camera will have problems setting a “correct” exposure so you have to fiddle with your aperture, shutterspeed and ISO settings quite a bit, or go for increasing exposure (move on the + side of the in camera meter) if shooting in Av (aperture priority) mode.

One way I deal with the contrast problem is to use varying shades of white throughout the photograph. The other thing to do is to provide just a little bit of colour which will provide the contrast and show up the “whites” much better. It is important that the hint/ touch of colour is in the food (or pretty close to the food because the eye is always drawn to this. So if your colour contrast is away from the food, your eye will not be drawn to the food first, which it should in food photography. I did this by garnishing my Ajo Blanco with olive oil and chives. This might look a bit pale and I could have used other “brighter/ more colourful” garnishes like bread croutons, toasted almonds or mint. I however wanted to keep to a “pastel-style” garnish and not take away from the soup itself. I also added a touch of “colour” at the back with a vinegar bottle to balance the composition a bit. The rains are on their way out and though there’s ample sunlight now, every time I’d set everything up for a shoot, the skies would become overcast so I didn’t have very good light to take these photographs. You can see slow shutter speed times I used and I had to brighten the photographs a bit in post-processing. All of these were taken using my 50mm f/1.8 lens.   (Taken at aperture - f/3.2 , shutterspeed - 1.3s and ISO 100)
My two critics at home gave me opposing opinions about the photograph. My daughter thought it was “washed out” and needed colour to brighten it up. When I explained the “white” theme, she said she got that but still didn’t particularly like the photograph! My husband on the other hand, thought it looked good, while I felt there was scope for improvement somewhere…. That prompted me to take a couple more differently composed photographs which were still white but with a little more contrast in terms of colour. I tend to prefer and shoot darker, moody tones and have shot very few food photographs that lean towards over-exposure and white/ pale/ pastel tones so it was an interesting challenge. I have been looking at these photographs for too long deciding which ones I liked best that all I’m seeing now is white! So I’ll leave the judging to you all, and let you tell me which ones you preferred, and why.
Ajo Blanco/ Sopa de Ajo / White Garlic Gazpacho
1 cup blanched almonds*
1/2 cup milk
1 cup peeled, deseeded and chopped cucumber
1 cup steamed cauliflower florets (optional)
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped** (mixed with 2 tsp fresh lemon juice)
1 cup white bread cubes***
1/2 cup thick yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil (you can use 1/8 cup if you prefer)
1 tsp garlic (or more according to taste)
2 tbsp honey
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth**** (or water)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives/ mint/ chopped cucumber/ bread croutons/ toasted almond slivers/ olive oil to garnish and serve
*Blanching almonds is easy to do. Put a small pan of water to boil. When it starts boiling, drop the almonds in it and turn the heat off and cover the pan. After about 2 minutes, drain the water completely. Take an almond and pinch the skin at one end. The almond will pop out of its skin easily. **Use green grapes if you can find them. Otherwise, use an apple instead or even in addition to the grapes. You can use a tart variety like Granny Smith or a Golden Delicious like I did. ***This soup traditionally uses stale country-style bread up to a week old! You can use stale/ day old sandwich bread after removing the crust. If you have sourdough bread or baguettes, use that for a better flavour. If your sourdough/ baguette is really stale, remove the crust and soak the bread in some water for about 10 to 15 minutes, squeeze out the water and then use. ****You can use water which is good because it dilutes the gazpacho without changing the taste. However, vegetable broth gives a nice flavour especially if you’re not very keen on a cucumbery tasting gazpacho. However, a strong/ flavoursome vegetable broth will change the taste of the gazpacho. What I did was to cook the cauliflower in 1 1/2 cups of water, and use this liquid in place of broth.   First lightly toast the blanched almonds in a pan. Then grind them to a fine paste using the milk. Keep aside. Put the cucumber, cauliflower, apple (with lime juice), garlic, honey and 1 cup of vegetable broth/ water in a blender and blend till smooth. Add the almond-milk paste and blend further. Now add the olive oil, yogurt and the remaining 1/2 cup of broth/ water and just blend till well mixed. The gazpacho can be a bit thick or thin as you prefer. An Ajo Blanco is meant to be a well-blended soup so you might like to strain the soup at this point to remove any solids. I personally prefer the slightly grainy texture and didn’t strain mine. Season it with salt and pepper to taste. Chill the gazpacho and serve with garnishes of choice. The gazpacho keeps refrigerated for a day and actually tastes better as the flavours develop on refrigeration. This recipe serves 4 to 6.      

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