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A Bowl of Bulbs


Around this time of year, early garlic comes to our markets. It's the kind of garlic with large, symmetrically arranged cloves in yellowish skin. However, it has a short harvest season and doesn't keep as well as the pink-skinned late garlic, so it will be around for only about two months. It is because of this seasonality, as well as the excellent flavor of early garlic, that July is when people put on garlic events--this weekend, for instance, the L.A. Garlic Festival will be held at the Federal Building in Westwood.

All kinds of garlic are the same in the kitchen, but something about garlic festival season inspires people to loony inventions like garlic ice cream. Entertaining though this can be, garlic is a very classic ingredient. In the cooking of Spain, the most garlic-oriented country in Europe, garlic soup occupies the same place that onion soup does in French cuisine.

When it occurs to American cooks to make a garlic soup, their instinct is usually to make it rich: a cream soup, one rounded out with onions and leeks, a thick vegetable puree scented with garlic. The Spanish, who love earthy food and, above all, the pure flavor of garlic, will have none of that. Spain's sopa de ajo isn't much more than broth and garlic, with a little bread fried in olive oil to thicken it.


Despite these limited means, the flavor is surprisingly rich. Since both the garlic and the bread have been browned, the aroma is sweet and toasty, and the combination of olive oil and bread makes it as satisfying as a meatier soup.


There are as many sopa de ajo recipes as there are cooks. Some make it thick, some make it thin. Most soak the bread to a mush, but some like to leave it a little crisp. Beef or chicken stock is common, but in Malaga fish stock is traditional. In the center of Spain, the liquid is often plain water. Basques tend to put tomatoes in and leave the paprika out. Many cooks enrich sopa de ajo with eggs, either by covering the soup with two beaten eggs and baking them into a crust or by stirring them into the soup in the manner of an Italian stracciatella or a Chinese egg-drop soup.


(Sopa de Ajo)

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 cups coarsely crumbled whole-wheat bread

1 teaspoon paprika

6 cups chicken stock


Freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, optional

Put olive oil in saucepan and warm over low heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is tender but not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in crumbled bread, raise heat to moderate and fry just until garlic is brown and bread is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in paprika, then add stock. Stir to break up lumps. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to very low and simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro. Makes 6 servings.

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