Thursday, April 16, 2009
In Córdoba, we realized the car was a mistake. Diverted by one-way / pedestrian-only streets, we drove in circles, spiraling farther and farther from our hostel until finally a parking lot opened on a back alley (“COMPLETO”, and then suddenly, when they spotted us, “LIBRE”)—a scam, most likely, but we were too frustrated to care if they stole our little Fiat Panda. We parked and walked the extra mile with our bags. Okay, just you had the bag. I left mine with the Fiat.
It was already evening—too late for the Mezquita, so instead we explored La Juderia and found that “Calleja de las Flores” lined with geraniums. Beautiful, with the minaret in the background, but we were distracted, hungry. Other restaurants were open already, but no, I insisted: El Churrasco was the one with the gazpacho.
You: the salmorejo: gazpacho's distilled essence (more a dip than a soup), with crumbled hard-boiled egg and serrano ham.
Me: the ajo blanco with pine nuts. We knew I'd made the better call—so did the server, it seemed, by the way he spooned plump sultana raisins and green apple into my bowl. The soup was creamy and resinous from the pine nuts, tart and sweet from the bits of bobbing fruit...
So you see, there's a reason why I've built up this soup in my mind. And even though I knew it would never taste the same outside of Spain, that my memory was informed by a whole constellation of factors (the pleasure of finally relaxing at a table, the shadows of the Mezquita, the lemony smell of geraniums), that didn’t deter me from trying the recipe when I spotted it in Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.
El Churrasco, I wish I didn’t know your secret. What makes this soup so “voluptuous,” I discovered, is the addition of raw eggs yolks. You puree the nuts with soaked bread, then add two egg yolks, then slowly stream in one cup of olive oil. If the process sounds familiar, that’s because, basically, you’re building a nutty bread mayonnaise. I’ll admit that I lost my nerve when it came time to add the second egg yolk.
I made a few other changes to the recipe as well, but I’ve preserved Wolfert’s version below so that you can see its original form. (My comments are in italics.) Even though I prepared the currants as instructed, I ended up ditching them in favor of sultanas (plumped in warm water) and diced Granny Smith apple, since that is what I remember. I’m very glad I did because really, this soup depends on the garnish—you want something sweet and tart to cut through the richness. In fact, next time, I would ditch my soup shot idea and use spoons so it’s easier to excavate the raisins that fall to the bottom. Either that, or I’ll work on inventing a way to suspend them mid-soup. Perhaps an ajo blanco aspic? Or—damn—maybe that's why I was supposed to add the second egg yolk.
Also, I didn’t have enough pine nuts (and the ones I had weren’t the greatest), so I had to substitute 1/2 cup almonds (not too great a liberty, as almonds are the traditional nut of ajo blanco). As a result, some of that lovely resinous flavor was missing. Next time, I would use all pine nuts, and not just any pine nuts: the $23.99 pine nuts that I guffaw at every time I’m in Citarella but secretly covet. I think this soup deserves it.
El Churrasco’s White Gazpacho with Pine Nuts and Currants
Adapted from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert
1/4 cup dried currants
2 tablespoons aged sherry wine vinegar
1 3/4 cups dried crumbled stale bread, crusts removed
1 1/2 cups pine nuts
3 large garlic cloves (I used only 2)
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 large egg yolks (I used only 2)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup dried sultana raisins, plumped in warm water
1 Granny Smith apple, chopped, for garnish
1. Soak the currants in the sherry vinegar and 2 tablespoons water until soft. Drain, reserving the currants and vinegar water separately.
2. Soak the bread in water until soft, then squeeze dry.
3. Process 1 1/3 cups of the pine nuts, the garlic, and the salt in a food processor until a paste forms. (The finer they are ground, the creamier the result will be.) Add the egg yolks and the bread and process to combine. With the machine on, slowly add the olive oil, as if making a mayonnaise. Dilute with 1 cup cold water and process for an instant. Press through a sieve into a bowl. Whisk in 4 cups more water, or enough so that the soup is the consistency of heavy cream.
4. Stir in the reserved vinegary water from the currants. Chill for at least half a day. (We strained the soup again before serving to get rid of the nut sediment.)
5. Just before serving, correct the seasoning with salt. Serve the soup garnished with the reserved currants (or the chopped apple and raisins) and remaining pine nuts.
Note: For a deeper flavor, slowly toast the pine nuts in a small, dry heavy-bottomed skillet, until fragrant but still pale.