Garlic soup almost sounds like something out of a fairy tale‚ a hot, stinky potion cooked up by a warty witch for her unsuspecting juvenile guests. But if Hansel and Gretel still have some bread in their pockets that hasn’t yet turned to crumbs, they’ll be in for a treat, because garlic soup is like liquid gold.
I first tried sopa de ajo at Dali, a wonderful Spanish tapas restaurant in Somerville, MA. On a cold night (and those New England nights sure are wicked cold), this soup hits the spot like none other. It’s a simple, silky, fragrant bowl of warmth. You can literally feel it heating up your body as it slides past your lips. Garlic is also an immunity booster, which makes sopa de ajo a bowl of soothing consolation. I’ll never crave chicken soup again.
Described as vegan on the menu, I asked our waiter what was the key to its silky texture, if not cream. He simply replied, “Bread.”
“But this is smooth‚ nothing bready or granular about it,” I pressed him, not willing to accept his answer.
“Lots and lots of bread,” he answered confidently and then set a plate of glazed lamb chops in front of me. Needless to say, I let the matter go.
This was several years ago, and when I Googled “sopa de ajo” I found nearly nothing. Recently, I tried again and came up with a plethora of hits, which I’m sure is the result of our rapidly increasing knowledge of Spanish food and Spain’s spot at the top of the culinary world. (Probably also due to that Batali/Bittman/Paltrow roadtrip show that I wanted to like but always made me mildly uncomfortable.)
Each sopa de ajo recipe I found was different. Some had floating garlic cloves while others had finely minced garlic swimming among croutons. A couple of recipes called for Serrano ham, many had you frying croutons and garlic first and adding it to the water, and several, including Martha Stewart’s, recommended that you add a poached egg.
These all sounded delicious, but I really wanted to replicate what I had at Dali. I found one description sans recipe that said sopa de ajo is the simplest, most traditional peasant food from the Pyrenees Mountains that requires only country bread, garlic and water. The honesty of that description inspired my peasant palette and inspired me to cook by instinct.
Sopa de Ajo
by Danielle Oteri, Good. Food. Stories.
- 4 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1/4 pound stale country white bread, crusts removed, torn into pieces
- 5 whole garlic cloves, skins removed*
- 1/2 tsp Spanish smoked paprika (optional; I like the one they sell at Penzeys)
Bring the vegetable stock or water to a boil in a medium stockpot. If using water, add 1 tbsp kosher salt.
Once the liquid comes to a boil, add the bread and garlic. Cook until the garlic is soft, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree the soup right in the pot with an immersion blender.
Top each serving with smoked paprika. Eight quarts of it cost me just $6 vs. the $7.50 per teensy bowl I have forked over many times at Dali, even less if you have homemade vegetable stock on hand.
And like Martha, I also recommend poaching an egg for your soup and then serving it with a slice of that same crusty bread. It makes for the perfect solo meal on a Meatless Monday.
*If you find garlic hard to digest, use elephant garlic, which is much milder and sweeter. Elephant garlic to regular garlic is like a leek to an onion.