The Chill Factor

Anna Thomas' latest cookbook is "The New Vegetarian Epicure: Menus for Family and Friends."

I ate my first fruit soup in a garden restaurant in Budapest one summer long ago, when I was just discovering Magyar cuisine. The waiter placed in front of me a large, wide-rimmed bowl full of garnet-colored liquid, with a gleaming mound of creme fra'che rising from its center. I dipped my spoon and tasted--cold, sweet and slightly tart, faintly spicy, and then a wave of deep, dark cherry flavor--heaven.

I remember many things from that trip: long, sultry days, weeping willows over a lake and the fairy-tale castle on the other side that was housing an exhibit of Soviet farming equipment, zither music floating from cellar windows as I walked up a narrow cobbled street at night. But my clearest memory remains that first taste of cherry soup.

When I got home, I went straight to the kitchen. I'm pretty good at re-creating the dishes I've tasted on my travels, but something wasn't quite right with this one; the flavor of the cherries didn't sing the way it had in Budapest. Well, when you're cooking, you have to be adaptable. I added fresh lemon juice and zest, thickened it with egg yolks, and came up with a cherry-lemon soup that became my abiding favorite for years.

There's some work in that soup. The cherries must be pitted and the soup cooked, then cooled. But it's a spectacular dish, a seasonal indulgence that always creates conversation at a dinner party.

Chilled soups are perfect for Southern California. But while gazpacho and its many cousins have become part of our culinary currency, cold fruit soups still retain a slightly exotic quality. Yet these soups, a tradition in many of the cuisines of Eastern Europe, translate perfectly to our climate and style. They are one of the rewards of living through a hot summer. Think how nice it is, when the sun has blazed all day, to sit down to dinner in a shady place and dip into a bowl of icy raspberry borscht or a chilled sweet melon soup with mint.

Summer is long in Southern California, and we have a luxurious growing season. Apricots and cherries start in early spring, followed by a bounty of peaches, nectarines, melons and berries, and the plums continue late into fall. The refreshing soups made from any of these fruits pair up beautifully with the spicy and boldly flavored foods that are so much a part of our cuisine. I served my cold melon soup with mint cream as an opener for a robust summer pasta with roasted tomatoes, feta cheese and salty Greek olives, with great success. Another time I had peach and nectarine soup before serving tamales with a fiery salsa--the combination was wonderful.

Most fruit soups, I hasten to say, are dead simple to make and practical, too. Any cooking must be done in advance, so a soup can be simmered in the early morning hours, before the heat becomes oppressive, then pureed and put away to chill and develop its full flavor. At dinnertime it's a ready, reviving treat. And many cold soups need no cooking at all. Cold peach and nectarine soup is one of my favorites, and it's not much more than a blended smoothie poured into a bowl and garnished with a sprig of mint. The ripe fruit is peeled and sliced, then blended to a silky smoothness with yogurt, honey, lemon juice, a hint of nutty Marsala and some cinnamon. This is chilled and served with more honey-sweetened yogurt swirled into each bowl. Mint sprigs are optional. There's probably not 15 minutes of actual work in a soup like that, and the result is seductively lovely, perfumed with the ripeness of summer.

But what I really love about these easy soups is the way they instantly elevate a simple meal to something special. A pasta with garden vegetables or a piece of grilled fish might seem ordinary. But throw a cloth on the table and start the meal with a plate of that icy-cold peachy soup, perhaps with raspberry puree swirled into the top along with droplets of cream, and all at once you have a sophisticated little dinner party--nothing overdone, not trying too hard, but just fabulous. Don't tell a soul that the soup took only 15 minutes to make. Take credit for being a genius.

COLD CHERRY AND LEMON SOUP

(adapted from "The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two,"

by Anna Thomas)

Serves 6

Grated zest of 3 lemons

1 cup lemon juice

2/3 cup sugar, or more to taste

1 cup water

1 cup fruity white wine

1 pound fresh, sweet dark cherries

5 egg yolks

10-12 ice cubes

1 cup sour cream

2-3 tablespoons sugar

*

Combine the lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, water and white wine in large enameled saucepan. Heat mixture until sugar is dissolved completely, stirring constantly. Wash cherries, remove stems and pit them. Set aside 18 of the cherries and add rest to soup. Simmer them gently until they are soft, then puree them in a blender with some of the liquid and put puree through fine ieve. Return puree to soup. Add egg yolks, beating them in with whisk. Continue whisking gently for several minutes, over very low heat, as soup thickens. Allow soup to cool somewhat, giving it an occasional stir. Taste, adding more sugar if you like. Chill soup throroughly. A few ice cubes can be stirred into soup just before serving.

To prepare sweetened sour cream, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of sugar to 1 cup fresh sour cream and beat it in thoroughly. To serve, ladle soup into well-chilled bowls, put 3 of reserved cherries into each bowl, and dollop of sweetened sour cream on top.

COLD MELON SOUP WITH MINT CREAM

(adapted from "The New Vegetarian Epicure")

Serves 6

3 cups water

1 cup sugar, plus additional 1-2 tablespoons

if desired

1 large, perfectly ripe melon (about 6 pounds), such as honeydew, Persian, or other juicy, sweet-fleshed variety

2 cups dry white wine

Juice of 2 large lemons, strained

1 cup heavy cream

3-4 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped

*

Combine water and sugar in saucepan and bring to simmer, washing down crystals from sides of the pan with brush. When sugar is dissolved, simmer syrup for 3-4 minutes, then allow to cool. Slice and seed melon, and scoop out soft ripe flesh. Puree in blender. You should have about 5 cups of puree. Stir white wine into puree, then start adding sugar syrup gradually, by half-cup at first, then even less. Stir and taste each time. When sweet taste becomes pronounced, add 2 tablespoons of strained lemon juice. Taste again. Add lemon juice or sugar syrup to achieve the right tart-sweet balance, without overwhelming the melon. (Remember: Every melon is different, every lemon is different, every wine is different.) Chill soup thoroughly; you may want to put it in the freezer 30 minutes before serving. To make mint cream, add finely chopped mint to cream, along with a little sugar if you like, and beat cream until it barely begins to thicken. Serve soup cold, in chilled bowls, with spoonful of mint cream in center of each.

COLD PEACH AND NECTARINE SOUP

with honey-sweetened yogurt

(adapted from "The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two,"

by Anna Thomas)

Serves 6

3 cups sliced, peeled ripe peaches

(about 2 pounds)

3 cups sliced, peeled ripe nectarines

(about 2 pounds)

3 cups plain lowfat yogurt

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons Marsala

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Mint sprigs, for garnish

*

Working in batches, puree fruit in blender with 2 cups of yogurt, 3 tablespoons of honey, the lemon juice, Marsala and cinnamon. Taste, adjusting the honey or lemon if needed--flavor should be pleasantly balanced between sweet and tart. Chill mixture well. Whisk together remaining cup of yogurt with remaining quarter cup of honey and chill. Ladle soup into shallow bowls and put spoonful of honey-sweetened yogurt in center of each serving. Garnish with mint sprigs. Serving suggestions: Use some strained fresh raspberry puree to paint designs into each bowl of soup. Substitute cream for yogurt in garnish if you want a richer soup. Scatter blackberries or blueberries across top of each serving as garnish instead of mint.

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