There is an everyday magic to be found in the simplest of dishes.
An effortless culmination of ingredients from the barest of cupboards can yield something so rich and soothing. It’s as though an alchemic formula has been revealed to the world. This is the sentiment that strikes me when I think of sopa de ajo, a Spanish garlic soup from the region of Castilla-Leon enjoyed throughout the nation.
The poster boy of peasant’s dishes, this is the beefy centerfold of rustic perfection—it’s a dish that has deservedly survived for hundreds of years, and one that is still widely consumed. Sopa de ajo originated as something eaten to provide energy and sustenance that would allow shepherds to traverse long distances across rough terrain. It’s roots were planted from basal scraps: bread, garlic and water were all one needed. My great-grandmother (a Spaniard) called it “stone soup” because a person didn’t need much more than water and a stone to make it.
It begins with the slow toasting of breadcrumbs in olive oil—a crusty, rustic loaf yields amazing notes that lend the soup a toasty, nutty depth, but even unseasoned, store-bought breadcrumbs can be coaxed into something special. Next, garlic is sautéed along with the breadcrumbs. While pungent at first, an addition of water or chicken stock followed by a slow simmer mellows the garlic, and its innate sweetness begins to emerge. Like many of the world’s regional dishes, it has undergone small additions and variations since its humble origins, but it retains its essence of frugality even today: the stale heel of bread from yesterday’s fresh loaf, the carcass of a chicken eaten the night before, and the inexpensive staples (not just in Spain, but many world kitchens) that are olive oil, garlic, and eggs. The yield from these simple elements and a bit of that inspire me to use words like “magic” and “alchemy.”
After visiting Spain on family vacation, sopa de ajo became as common as chicken soup in our Columbus home. Just as it kept a winter chill at bay for generations of Castilians, so it did for us. I would anxiously await my father’s signal that the soup was ready. Of course the smell was an indicator, but the moment of truth came when he would start cracking eggs into the soup, allowing the aromatic broth to envelop and poach them. Sometimes he would stir them right into the soup; other times, he would ladle a soup-poached egg into each of our bowls, along with some parsley and a big toasted crouton.
A few weeks ago, I watched my friends as they patiently waited for me to poach their eggs in my own homemade pot of sopa de ajo. When they asked me about the recipe, I of course complied by listing the simple ingredients. Their eyes reflected disbelief and, for a moment, I felt as though I were the magician.
You can be, too:
Sopa de Ajo
1/2 cup olive or pomace oil (not extra virgin, it will burn)
12 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups breadcrumbs (unseasoned from a can, or homemade from a stale French or Italian loaf)
8 cups chicken broth
4 cups water (or use all water for vegetarian)
1/2 tsp. pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
Fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
8 eggs, or one per serving size (the better the egg, the better the soup)
1 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground coarse black pepper
1. In a large stockpot, heat all but two tablespoons olive oil on medium heat.
2. Once oil has warmed, add breadcrumbs and stir into oil, slowly stirring continuously for about four to five minutes, or until turning a light golden brown. Then add remaining olive oil and garlic, and continue stirring until garlic has softened and breadcrumbs are toasted evenly to a deep golden brown. (If breadcrumbs are turning black, the heat is too high!)
3. Add one teaspoon salt and pimentón and stir into garlic and breadcrumbs.
4. Slowly add chicken stock and/or water, stirring into the breadcrumb mixture as you pour.
5. Bring pot to a boil then turn down to a slow simmer. Cover and continue to simmer for at least an hour—sometimes I let it go for two or more…
6. Season with additional salt to taste and stir in parsley.
7. Egg method one: stir soup and start cracking eggs into it. Continue stirring so that eggs break apart and cook into the soup.
Egg method two: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED—For each bowl of soup that you will be serving, crack an egg, one at a time, into a soup ladle. Dip ladle into simmering broth and swirl around in the soup until the broth has poached the egg. You want the yolk to be very soft. Ladle a poached egg into each bowl and cover with a few ladles of the soup. Top with a toasted piece of bread or homemade croutons, and finish with freshly ground pepper.
8. Enjoy the magic.