Tidbits savory with garlic and vinegar or satiny with schmaltz may pique the appetite, but for many Jews, no real meal begins without soup. So for much of the calendar, stocks simmer on the stove for hours, and out of the oniony fog come golden chicken soup, earthy mushroom and barley, tangy borscht--brought to the table steaming hot.
But as spring slides into summer, berries and rhubarb ripen and tree blossoms give way to soft-skinned fruit, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries prepare soups from local fruits and serve them chilled.
For some, cold soup season begins at Shavuot with the earliest fruits-often first-of-the-year strawberries. Chilled fruit soups are wonderful for Shabbat lunches or non-meat Friday night dinners, picnics-actually for any meal on sultry days, including breakfast. Quick and easy to prepare-there's no stock to make and cooking time is short-they are make-aheads that can be readied in the coolest hours, then left to chill until serving time.
Every area has its favorites. The long, hot summers of Hungary and Transylvania produce excellent stone fruits, which show up in celebrated Sour Cherry or Plum Soups. Berries grow everywhere, even in the coolest northern parts, perfect for Baltic soups made of bilberries (the closest Old World cousin of the New World blueberry) or Polish Strawberry Soup, and soups made with raspberries or various combinations of berries. Peaches, apricots, and other stone fruits appear solo or in concert, and tutti-frutti mishmashes of tree fruits and berries are very popular as well.
A few weeks ago, I cooled off from the sweltering Budapest sun at a café with a chilled cantaloupe soup. The colors and flavors conjured a kaleidoscope of long ago Long Island Augusts: icy orange melons, Good Humor creamsicles, sliced peaches slathered with sour cream, and Coral Vanilla, my mother's summer lipstick shade. Ethereal. And it was served in a unique compote-type dish: beneath the soup was a wide, hollow stem, which was overfilled with water and frozen, so that the soup rested on a thick solid slab of ice, keeping it frosty cold to the last drop.
In fact, cold fruit soups are almost as much fun to serve as they are to eat. Present them in glass bowls-anything from simple clear ones to your grandmother's cut glass-to show off their striking colors. Or offer them in a collection of family teacups or expresso cups. Or you can serve them as shooters in large shot glasses: offer a summer tasting of three shooters of different, beautiful soups to each guest.
I've given three recipes below, and you can easily devise your own from the ripest selection at your market or in the garden. Here are some guidelines for your improvisations.
- Simmer the fruit until soft in plain water or a mixture of water and wine (white or red, depending on the fruit), tea (a fragrant black tea or an herbal one-Red Zinger, for example, can be lovely in berry soups), or fruit juice.
- Using fruit juice for part of the liquid-or very sweet fruit-might obviate the need for a sweetener, though most likely, you'll want to add sugar (white or light brown), honey, or even some maple syrup. But unless you are serving the soup for dessert, as some do, fruit soups should be only subtly sweet.
- All fruits soups will thicken a little as they chill, but many traditional recipes call for additional thickeners like corn or potato starch, arrowroot, or tapioca. I find that pureeing some (or all) of the fruit usually adds plenty of body. And a little pureed dried fruit will not only add body, but ratchet up the flavor as well (especially helpful with pallid-tasting fresh fruit): a few prunes in a plum soup, for example, or dried peaches in a fresh peach soup. Another alternative: a bit of crustless challah, cooked in a thinnish soup, and then pureed.
- If you are not highlighting a single fruit, consider including a complementary tangier fruit for more complex flavors: rhubarb, for instance, brings pleasantly sour notes and more body to a strawberry soup. If possible, try to cook stone fruits with their pits, which will contribute subtle undertones of almond (to which these fruits are related). Remember to remove the pits before serving (easily done if the fruits are cooked until meltingly tender: puree through a food mill or trap in a sieve or simply use your hands when the fruit has cooled).
- Citrus zest and juices, fresh mint, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, perhaps a hint of liqueur or wine lend flavor in classic recipes. Today's cooks might experiment with tarragon and other more savory herbs, a few drops of rosewater to embolden anemic supermarket strawberries, a whiff of cardamom. I've seen a recipe calling for a pinch of freshly ground pepper in the whipped cream swirled into a strawberry soup: the spark of heat plays with the sweetness, creating more nuanced flavor.
- Cream-sweet or sour-or another dairy product like crème fraiche, yogurt, milk, or buttermilk, is not essential: some traditional Jews serve the soup pareve, as a prelude to a meat meal. But to me, naked fruit soup is like chopped liver without schmaltz-coarse and rather besides the point. Dairy adds not only a wonderful richness, but also rounds out acidic fruit flavors and brings balance to the soup. Many cooks today substitute yogurt for the sour cream originally used: whole milk Greek-style yogurt is particularly delicious.
- As a garnish, set aside a little of the fresh fruit starring in the soup: a few raspberries, thin slices of apricot. Or top with fresh mint, lemon verbena, or unsprayed edible flowers in vivid colors.