When the produce at your local store, farmers market or your own garden is at its peak, it’s time to make fresh vegetables the star of your meal.
It’s time to make summertime soups.
In the summer, you want to make the most out of your produce by bringing out its flavor in the most pure and natural way. The fewer adornments, the less complexity, the better. Other flavors should not distract you from the garden-fresh goodness of your bounty.
As an added benefit, simple flavors usually come from simple cooking techniques.
In other words, summertime soups are both delicious and easy to make. Win-win.
I recently made four summertime soups. Only one of them was chilled, but each, in its own way, was unforgettable.
We’ll start with the chilled soup first. It’s called Beet-Fennel-Ginger Soup, and along with beets, fennel and ginger it is also made with cabbage and vegetable stock.
“That’s borsch,” said a colleague. “You just made borsch” in March.
“It’s not borsch,” I said. “It isn’t just beet soup, it also has cabbage and vegetable stock…”
OK, it’s borsch. But this version is made without meat, so it is a hearty vegetarian meal — or vegan, if you forgo the dollop of yogurt on top.
It is also lighter in tone and texture than borsch I have made in the past. While it still has the sweetly earthy undertone that comes from the beets, it is also enlivened by the exotic, anise taste of fennel and the finishing warm bite of ginger.
When pureed together — and these recipes are going to require a lot of pureeing — the ingredients become better than their individual parts. The soup is also light and smooth, perfect for a warm summer’s evening.
I went the elegant route for my next effort, Asparagus and Shiitake Mushroom Soup. The recipe came from the now-sadly-closed Trellis restaurant, which in its heyday was one of the best restaurants in Virginia.
I have made asparagus soup many times, and loved it. I have made mushroom soup many times, and loved it. But never have I thought to combine the two into one incredible dish. That takes the kind of culinary genius possessed by Marcel Desalniers, the pioneering original chef-owner of the Trellis.
The soup that results is magnificently subtle, playing the delicate, fresh springlike taste of asparagus off the satisfying umami burr of the shiitake mushrooms.
As befits the restaurant that also created the dessert called Death By Chocolate, this soup is not for people counting their Weight Watchers’ points. A rich roux turns the texture of the soup to velvet, and the flavors are all tied together by a cup of heavy cream.
I used half-and-half to save a few calories. That way, I felt virtuous and healthful, even though I wasn’t.
My next soup also came from a famous restaurant. Cream of Zucchini and Almond Soup was a dish served at the Walnut Room in the flagship State Street location of the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago.
And again I am in awe at the creativity of chefs.
Who would ever think to combine the grassiness of zucchini with the warm, nutty crunch of almonds? And then who would think to put it together in a cream soup?
But that’s not where the brilliance of this dish ends. The soup stands out because of the subtle inclusion of sweet spice: a restrained mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
It’s a soup unlike any you’ve had before, unless you’ve been to the Walnut Room.
My last soup is the easiest of them all to make. Sweet Pea Soup also has the freshest taste — even though it uses frozen peas. You could use fresh peas if you can find them.
All you do is simmer together the peas, some sweet red pepper, a hunk of onion and a carrot in chicken stock, vegetable stock or even ham stock. When the vegetables are thoroughly cooked, but just barely, you puree it to a silky smooth texture.
Salt it generously and serve it, if you want, with croutons or crumbled bacon.
I used both. It seemed like a summery thing to do.
Yield: 8 servings
2 1/2 cups red beets, peeled and chopped
4 cups chopped cabbage
2 cups chopped fennel
1 garlic clove, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped ginger
8 cups vegetable stock, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup nonfat yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped fennel sprigs
1. Combine the beets, cabbage, fennel, garlic, ginger and 6 cups of the stock in a large soup pot and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes.
2. Strain the soup through a large-mesh sieve. Puree the vegetables in 1 cup of the heated broth in a food processor or blender until smooth (you may have to do this in batches). Add the remaining heated broth, and blend. If the soup is not of a pourable consistency, add some of the remaining 2 cups of broth until it reaches your desired texture.
3. Chill at least 2 hours before serving. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in chilled bowls, if desired, with yogurt and fennel sprigs.
Per serving: 60 calories; 1 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 1 g cholesterol; 3 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 756 mg sodium; 51 mg calcium
Adapted from “Healthy Cooking” by At Home with the Culinary Institute of America
ASPARAGUS AND SHIITAKE MUSHROOM SOUP
Yield: 8 servings
1 pound fresh asparagus
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon water
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium leeks, white part only, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
6 cups chicken stock
7 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
1. Fill a large bowl with ice and water, and set aside. Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil.
2. Snap the woody stem off each stalk of asparagus, and reserve. Lightly peel half the number of stalks. Chop the reserved ends and the remaining unpeeled asparagus into 1/4-inch pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. Blanch the peeled asparagus in the boiling water. Do not overcook; the asparagus should be cooked yet remain crisp. Transfer the blanched asparagus to the ice water.
3. When the blanched asparagus is cool, cut into 3/4-inch pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.
4. Remove and chop the mushroom stems. Slice and reserve the caps.
5. Heat the vegetable oil and water in a large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the chopped (1/4-inch) asparagus, mushroom stems, celery, leeks and onions. Season with salt and pepper and saute until the onions are translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
6. While the chicken stock is heating, melt the butter in a separate large saucepan over low heat. Add the flour to make a roux and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux bubbles, 6 to 8 minutes. Strain 4 cups boiling stock into the roux and whisk vigorously until smooth. Add the remaining stock and vegetables. Whisk until well combined. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
7. Puree in a blender or a food processor. Strain into a 5-quart saucepan and return to low heat. Hold at a simmer for a few minutes while completing the recipe (Note: If you are not going to serve the soup within 1 hour, do not complete the next step until ready to serve; otherwise, the delicate flavor and color of the asparagus will be dissipated).
8. Heat the cream, sliced shiitakes and 3/4-inch asparagus pieces in a nonstick saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add to the soup and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately. (This soup may be held hot in a double boiler for up to 1 hour.)
Per serving: 250 calories; 18 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 45 g cholesterol; 6 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 389 mg sodium; 58 mg calcium
Recipe from “The Trellis Cookbook” by Marcel Desaulniers
CREAM OF ZUCCHINI AND ALMOND SOUP
Yield: 8 servings
6 tablespoons onion, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/3 cups zucchini, sliced thin
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
5 cups chicken stock
2 1/2 tablespoons ground almonds, see note
2/3 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Note: You can use almond butter for ground almonds. If you don’t have it, grind slivered almonds in a spice grinder or chop small and grind with a mortar and pestle.
Saute onions in butter until soft. Add zucchini and slivered almonds. Cook, stirring for 3 minutes (zucchini should not be barely tender, not limp). Add chicken stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Add ground almonds. Simmer 10 minutes. Stir in cream, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat thoroughly.
Per serving: 134 calories; 8 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 20 g cholesterol; 5 g protein; 8 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 218 mg sodium; 21 mg calcium
Adapted from “Marshall Field’s Gourmet: A Taste of Tradition”
SWEET PEA SOUP
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
4 (1-inch) slices sweet red bell pepper
1 carrot, peeled and sliced thin
4 cups chicken, ham or vegetable stock
2 cups frozen or fresh peas
Salt, to taste
Crispy bacon, optional
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, red pepper and carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add stock and simmer 5 minutes. Add peas and cook until peas are heated through, 1 minute for frozen and 3 to 5 minutes for fresh. Add salt to taste. Puree in a blender until smooth. Serve with croutons and crumbled bacon, if desired.
Per serving: 198 calories; 7 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 5 g cholesterol; 7 g protein; 29 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 1,355 mg sodium; 49 mg calcium
Adapted from “Vita-Mix Recipes for Better Living.”