When the produce from your local store, farmer’s 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 some summer soups.
In summer, you want to enhance your products by bringing out their flavor in the purest and most natural way. The less ornamentation, the less complexity, the better. The other flavors shouldn’t 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, summer soups are both delicious and easy to prepare. Win-win.
I recently made four summer soups. Only one of them was icy, but each, in its own way, was unforgettable.
We’ll start with the cold soup first. It’s called beet-fennel-ginger soup, and along with beets, fennel, and ginger, it’s also made with cabbage and vegetable broth.
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“It’s borscht,” said a colleague. “You just made borscht” in March.
“It’s not borscht,” I said. “It’s not just beetroot soup, it’s also cabbage and vegetable broth…”
OK, it’s borscht. But this version is made without meat, so it’s a hearty vegetarian meal — or vegan, if you forgo the dollop of yogurt on top.
It’s also lighter in tone and texture than the borscht I’ve made in the past. While it still has the sweet earthy undertone that comes from beets, it’s also enlivened by the exotic, aniseed taste of fennel and the final warm bite of ginger.
When pureed together – and these recipes are going to call for a lot of puree – the ingredients become better than their individual parts. The soup is also light and creamy, perfect for a hot summer evening.
I went the elegant route for my next endeavor, the 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’ve made asparagus soup several times and loved it. I’ve made mushroom soup several times and loved it. But I never thought of combining the two into one amazing dish. It takes on the kind of culinary genius possessed by Marcel Desalniers, the pioneering first chef-owner of Trellis.
The resulting soup is beautifully subtle, playing off the delicate, fresh springtime taste of asparagus against the satisfying umami smudge of 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 into velvet, and the flavors are all tied together by a cup of heavy cream.
I used half and half to save some calories. In this way, I felt virtuous and healthy, even though I was not.
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 store in Chicago.
And once again, I am in awe of the creativity of the chefs.
Who would have ever thought of combining the herb of zucchini with the warm, nutty crunch of almonds? And then who would think of putting it together in a cream soup?
But that’s not where the brilliance of this dish ends. The soup is distinguished by the subtle addition of sweet spices: a sober blend of brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
It’s soup like you’ve never tasted, unless you’ve been to the Walnut Room.
My last soup is the easiest of all to make. Sugar snap pea soup also tastes the freshest, even though it uses frozen peas.
You can use fresh peas if you can find them.
All you do is simmer the peas, some sweet red pepper, a large piece of onion, and a carrot together in chicken broth, vegetable broth, or even ham broth. When the vegetables are cooked through, but just barely, you puree them to a silky smooth texture.
Salt it generously and serve it, if you wish, with croutons or crumbled bacon.
I used both. It seemed like a summer thing to do.