- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — In the sweltering heat of summer, my interest in preparing slowly simmered foods melts as quickly as ice cubes on hot pavement. Although all I crave are basically simple dishes, I want them to taste good and have texture and eye appeal, as well.

Many soups meet these demands. My favorites rely on the finest seasonal produce and are often served chilled or at room temperature. They can be an elegant start to a summer meal, a soothing lunch or a refreshing dessert.

Tomatoes are the perfect example of why I wait for in-season crops, and gazpacho has long been one of my summertime staples. When I found some heirloom varieties at a local farm stand recently, I was enticed to experiment further.

For this new effort, I blend ripe, juicy tomatoes with aromatic vegetables, a pinch of saffron and a splash of pastis. Finely diced cucumber, avocado and red onion add a satisfying texture, and a dollop of lightly salted basil-lemon-scented cream is a tasty topping.

The combination makes me think of Provence with a touch of America’s Southwest. Like many hot-weather soups, it’s best served cool, not cold, so you can appreciate nuances of flavor.

Another room-temperature first course or luncheon soup was inspired by a favorite cool-weather pasta dish, “pasta tre P,” in which prosciutto, peas and Parmesan cheese are combined in a creamy sauce. For this vibrant green soup, peas cooked in the French style (with lettuce and butter) are pureed with stock and light cream. Tiny cubes of prosciutto are added, and each bowl is served with a Parmesan-black-pepper crisp.

Unless you find tender young peas in the market (a fleeting pleasure), use tiny frozen ones. Forget about buying and shelling starchy big ones; the taste is sadly lacking.

Many vegetables and fruits can similarly be whizzed almost instantly into chilly soups with a blender or food processor. Add a little stock, juice or even buttermilk (or a combination) and some herbs, and you have a quick meal. Because purees seem to absorb a lot of liquid, have extra on hand to add if needed; otherwise, you may feel as if you are eating a vegetable side dish or compote.

If a soup uses stock, it should either be made in your kitchen or be a high-quality prepared product without additives and excess salt. Yogurt is another a terrific base, especially for fruits soups. Here again, choose the best quality you can find. I especially like Greek yogurt. Either full-fat or low-fat varieties are preferable because nonfat yogurt usually produces thin, watery results.

In one hot-weather dessert, vanilla yogurt, pureed peaches and apple cider are blended.

Whole fresh blueberries lend visual appeal, as do a tiny scoop of peach sorbet and a small mint leaf added before serving. The work is minimal, and you can even use frozen peaches.

Usually, less is more when deciding what to add or serve with these seasonal offerings. Fresh herbs and even edible flowers or thin slices of French bread spread with flavored olive oil or butter are all nice accents. Too many layers of spice and flavor, however, mask the beauty of the ingredients.

Heat, either as a temperature or a level of seasoning, needn’t be categorically ruled out. In India, where thermometers often stall in the upper 90s for weeks at a time, there is a long tradition of eating hot and spicy curried foods to help the body cool itself down. Even robust soups such as bouillabaisse and cioppino (originally Italian but adopted by San Franciscans) inspire thoughts of leisurely meals at seaside resorts.

Not long ago, I was inspired by the flavors of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia to create a somewhat spicy soup with pureed mangoes and coconut milk, Penang red curry paste, ginger and lemon grass as its base. It was the most beautiful pale-orange hue. When I added diced lobster meat and a mango, red pepper and basil salsa, the dish came together into a visually seductive, dramatic taste experience.

Although the day was steamy hot, I relished a perfect summer lunch.

The following recipes are from “Soup for Every Body” by Joanna Pruess (Lyons Press), to be published in October.

Chilled summer tomato soup with diced vegetables and basil cream

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small rib celery, trimmed and sliced

1 small onion, peeled and sliced

1 small leek, white part only, rinsed to remove grit, sliced

1 medium red bell pepper, seeds and membranes removed, sliced

small fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced

8 large cloves garlic, split

4 pounds large, ripe heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped

1 bouquet garni of 4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 2 large sprigs basil, tied with string

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1/4 cup pastis or other anise-flavored liqueur (optional)

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1/4 cup red onion cut into 1/8-inch dice

1/4 cup English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/8-inch dice

1/4 cup ripe avocado, cut into 1/8-inch dice

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons heavy or light cream, plus more for topping

Grated zest of lemon

10 large fresh basil leaves

Heat oil in large, heavy, nonreactive casserole over medium-low heat. Stir in celery, onion, leek, bell pepper, fennel and garlic. Cover and sweat until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, bouquet garni, water and saffron, and bring to a boil. Partially cover and cook until tomatoes are completely tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard the herbs. Stir in pastis, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let soup cool over a bowl of ice. (If you are in a hurry, omit this step. However, cooling helps to retain the tomatoes’ bright redness.)

Transfer soup to blender, and puree it until smooth, then pass it through a fine strainer, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible.

Combine red onion, cucumber and avocado in a small bowl. Add lemon juice and pinch of salt. Blend sour cream and heavy or light cream in a small bowl.

Chop basil and stir into the cream along with the lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Stir diced vegetables into the soup. Ladle into bowls, add a dollop of cream and serve at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Three-P soup

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter or olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots

1 small head Boston or bibb lettuce, washed, cored, shaken of excess water and cut into thin strips

4 cups shelled young peas, or two 16-ounce packages frozen small peas, defrosted

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

2 teaspoons sugar or to taste

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup light cream

4 ounces prosciutto, cut into fine dice

6 tablespoons freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Heat butter or oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots; cook until translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the lettuce and peas, reserving about cup for the final garnish, and salt and sugar. Cover the pan, and cook gently for 10 minutes.

Transfer peas to a food processor or electric blender, and puree until smooth. Do this in batches if necessary. Reserve any liquid in the pan not used to puree the peas. Pass the peas through a fine strainer to eliminate pea skins. Return mixture to pan.

Stir in stock, cream and prosciutto, and cook over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Combine Parmesan and black pepper in a bowl. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. For each crisp, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of cheese in a 3-inch circle. It should be thin. Leave about 2 inches between circles. Cook until the cheese melts and the edges begin to brown. Remove with spatula and cool on cake rack.

Ladle soup into bowls, garnish with Parmesan-black pepper crisp and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Curried mango soup with lobster

1 cup pureed ripe mango

1 cup aseptically packaged mango nectar (not canned mango pulp)

1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk

2 tablespoons Penang-style red curry paste, available at some supermarkets and Asian groceries

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh lemon grass

1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

8 ounces lobster meat, cut into -inch cubes

2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salsa:

cup finely diced ripe mango

cup finely diced red bell pepper or a combination of bell pepper and hot red chili peppers

2 tablespoons finely chopped basil

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Combine pureed mango, mango nectar, coconut milk, curry paste, lemon grass, ginger root and brown sugar an electric blender; puree until completely smooth. Pour soup through fine strainer into a bowl, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible.

Heat butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add lobster, and saute it until just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes, turning frequently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour on rum, if using, and cook over high heat for 30 seconds. Scrape into the soup.

For the salsa: Combine diced mango, red pepper, basil and lime juice in a bowl. Divide soup among four large, flat bowls. Top each with a generous spoonful of salsa and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Peach soup with blueberries

2 to 3 large ripe peaches, peeled, destoned, pureed (about 1 cup) and refrigerated until very cold

1 cup apple cider

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

teaspoon ground nutmeg

6 ounces vanilla yogurt

pint fresh blueberries

Peach sorbet, optional

Mint leaves, to garnish

Combine peaches, cider, honey, lemon juice and nutmeg in electric blender, and puree until smooth. Pour into a bowl, then fold in yogurt, cover and chill for at least 2 hours.

Before serving, stir in the blueberries, ladle the soup into bowls, add a small scoop of sorbet (if desired), and garnish with a mint leaf.

Makes 4 servings.

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