The weather that met me here in Madrid was somewhat less hospitable than assumed. During the first few days I was caught in a couple Madrilenian deluges of rain, which sneakily materialized from formerly blue and crystal clear skies. Like clockwork, the rain would wait until I was a good kilometer walk from home before showing its wet, ugly face.
I’d just left the grocery story with my hands full of bags and was hiding under an awning waiting for torrential abatement. Next to me a Russian man was talking on the phone in broken English about his meal of “ham-bor-gars and French frowns.” Opposite to my awning stood the depressed Hello Kitty from a few days prior, her wet head weighing heavily on her narrow shoulders. She looked at me with empty, sympathetic eyes. I checked her mittens for sharp objects, just in case.
The rain began subsiding and I started to walk back to my apartment. Less than 20 meters from the safety of my awning, a crack in a cloud sent another volley of freezing, pelting rain. Why did this rain hurt? Because it was hail, that’s why.
Another few steps with my face being assaulted by pellets of ice and I saw the bright green ink on one of the bags had begun to bleed all over my hands and white shirt. When I lifted it up to examine the damage, the bottom fell out and my groceries sprawled across the wet cement. I dropped to the ground to scoop up my food and growled, “You’ve got to be *bleeeeeeeeeeeeeep*-ing kidding me.” Nobody within earshot blinked an eye, either because they didn’t understand or their empathy suspended social propriety.
I gathered the groceries and stuffed them into one of my other bags, which then also ripped. I hugged my groceries – practically squeezing the contents from their bottles and bags – and walked home. The green-hued water soaked my arms and clothes, and my flip-flops sent out loud slurpy signals in all directions letting passersby know to make way, I’m coming through. And then I stepped in dog poop.
When I finally reached my apartment I dropped the groceries onto the counter, threw my flip-flops into the shower and landed face-first into the bed, outlining the sheets with my soaked clothes. I’d just gotten my ass handed to me by Mother Nature.
Fortunately the rain, hail and coldness worked as a nice segue into my first Spanish recipe: sopa de ajo. Sopa de ajo is literally just garlic soup and its humble roots stem from the Spanish plains where the indigent made meals out of whatever meager ingredients they had on hand. In the case of sopa de ajo, just three ingredients were needed: garlic, stale bread and water.
As generations passed the soup took on many variations, such as using chicken stock in lieu of water, adding various spices and herbs, and some adding proteins including eggs and meat. Many new adaptations call to poach an egg in the garlicy broth, top it with a piece of toasted bread covered in cheese and place it under a broiler to finish. Regardless of the many liberties cooks make, there are still Spanish purists that prefer its modest beginnings of using just water, garlic, and salt for taste, and sprinkling a few buoyant croutons on top.
After twenty minutes of simmering my apartment began smelling like a vampire’s nightmare. I finished the sopa de ajo, ladled it into an old earthenware bowl and opened the window overlooking the ancient, tiled roof of my neighbor’s building. As I ate and waited for my clothes to dry, I sat and watched the rain continue for the following hour thinking about the luxuries I have today that the pioneers of sopa de ajo had only dreamed of: a heated apartment, dry underwear and a cheap wine shop next door to get me good and toasted.
SOPA de AJO
Recipe: Sopa de Ajo
Summary: An old Spanish indigent staple originally made from just garlic, water and bread.
Preparation time: 10 minute(s)
Cooking time: 30 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 6
- ¼ cup quality olive oil
- 9 or 10 peeled garlic cloves
- 6 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegan/vegetarian option)
- 1 ½ tsp pimenton (sweet paprika)
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- Pinch of saffron
- Dash of cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Crusty bread
- In a medium sized stock or soup pot, heat up the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic cloves for 5 minutes, or until soft and slightly browned.
- Remove garlic from the pan and place into a separate bowl, crushing the cloves with a fork.
- Add the cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper and water or chicken stock to the pot and heat to a simmer. Crush the saffron threads between your fingers to release their oils and add to the stock.
- Return the crushed garlic cloves to the stock and season with salt and pepper and cover, simmering for fifteen to twenty minutes.
- Serve with crusty bread.