Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hot weather calls for cold soup

Mechanical refrigeration has not been around all that long. To us who all have refrigerators and freezers, it seems inconceivable that at one time having ice in the middle of a hot summer was a really big deal. Mostly it came from ice that was harvested in winter from lakes and rivers, transported to ice houses where it was stored for the hot months by covering it deeply in mounds of sawdust.

My father owned a building (formerly a bank) in Mamaroneck, New York, where I grew up, and in its sub-basement was a huge tub, looking like a bathtub for Andre the Giant, where chunks of ice would be brought in several times a week. Blowers connected to air ducts for the building would take the cooled air upwards into the offices. I have no idea when it was last used, but it’s very impressive. The building opened in 1928, and obviously modern air conditioning didn’t exist. Most people still had iceboxes in those days, too.

What did people do when they needed to cool off, weren’t near open water to jump in, trapped in cities where you could only pray for rain to keep you from melting? Who wanted to eat hot food on days when the sidewalks are on slow roast – and what about those poor souls who had to cook?

[Sidebar: I worked one summer in the kitchen at the National Club located in the heart of the financial district of Toronto. It wasn’t air conditioned at that time (the kitchen) and it used to get up to 110° and more. I would drink pint glasses of iced coffee, 4 or 5 on an 8-hour shift and not pee once.]

One elegant solution to hot weather when it came to eating out was cold soup, served in special bowls surrounded by cracked ice. The most elegant of these soups is vichyssoise. It was created by French chef Louis Diat who was chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City (and we all know how hot in can get there in the summer!) back in 1917. Harkening back to a rustic hot soup of his youth spent near Vichy, potage parmentier, he came up with the idea of chilling it (and also adding a lot more cream, I'm sure). The result was a sensation – still is, when it’s made well.

But we’re not making that today.

Toronto at this moment is beastly hot, much like those days I remember at the NC. This weekend I found some beautiful local watercress, so instead of vichyssoise, I decided to make Vicki’s favorite cold soup, cream of watercress, mostly because I do love her and she really suffers from the heat, but also because today is our 42nd anniversary! (I can’t believe she’s put up with me this long – but she also says the same thing.)

Happy Anniversary Vicki. We fell in love at Playland in Rye, NY. Wonder if those evening breezes coming off the Long Island Sound are as cooling as I remember?

The soup today at lunch was lovely and very refreshing.

Chilled Cream of Watercress Soup

2 Tbs butter
2 cups sweet onions, sliced finely
4 cups potatoes, sliced finally
2 bunches fresh watercress, washed carefully
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
2 cups whole milk
1 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 cup low-fat sour cream (optional but encouraged)

1. Melt butter in a two-quart pot, then sauté the onions until soft. Add the potatoes and sauté 4 minutes longer. Don’t let anything brown.

2. Add one bunch of watercress, salt and pepper and add just enough boiling water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are just done. Don’t overcook!

3. While the soup is cooking, remove the stems from the other bunch of watercress and finely chop the leaves. You should have about one cup of minced watercress at the end.

4. Using a blender or food processor, purée soup until it’s no longer lumpy, but also not too smooth. I use the blender lightly and then just sieve everything to get rid of any remaining lumps. You don’t want to take away all the texture.

5. Put the soup back in pot, add the milk and Tabasco sauce and bring up to serving temperature. Check for seasoning.

6. When ready to serve, put 2 tablespoons of the minced watercress in each soup bowl, pour the hot soup and stir lightly to spread out the minced leaves. Note: If you’re going to serve it chilled, stop after step 4, and chill the soup for several hours, or preferably, overnight. When ready to serve, stir in the milk and sour cream if you’re using that, then follow step six, except have the bowls really chilled. (I put them in the freezer.) I usually add a bit more Tabasco when serving it chilled because the sought-after bite is somewhat muted.

No comments: