Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fire and Ice: Shape-Shifting Soup for Sultry Days

Summer has always been my favorite season. As a child, I loved my mornings by the pool, my lazy popsicle-filled afternoons playing with my Barbies, and those long, late sunsets scented with barbecue smoke. So deep was my love of summer that I sometimes suspect I chose a teaching career so I could still have my summer vacation. Since then, I've had to write lesson plans and review thesis drafts while slurping on popsicles, but summer has still been still a joy.

But the best part of summer for me is that it is the season of "why not?." The wide-open summer days of my childhood were filled with twisted experiments: Why not spend two days sewing a smocked and pleated doll dress? Why not write a rambling, twenty-page ghost story that made sense only to me? Why not take that pewter salt shaker my parents got for their wedding up into the hillside behind the house so I could pour salt on all the snails that had been eating up Mom's flowers? (Because I might drop this non-replaceable item down a storm drain, where it lies to this very day?) And as an adult, my summer "why-nots?" turned into some of my best research and writing.

Then I moved to Florida.

Summer in Florida, to put it as diplomatically as possible, sucks. The combination of hundred-degree heat, stifling humidity, and a preponderance of stinging, biting, dengue-fever-bearing invertebrates the size of Mini Coopers makes the very idea of stepping outside repulsive. To add to the misery, my two favorite hobbies -- cooking and birding -- become nearly impossible: turning on the stove only aggravates the heat, and the birds, quite sensibly, migrate to more pleasant locales or lie low during the summer. Even the snowbirds retreat to their former breeding grounds in Michigan or Minnesota.

Still, one needs to eat during hot weather, and summer, thankfully, brings forth loads of ripe fruit and vibrant veggies that make eating one of the few pleasant things about summer in Florida. Cold soups are a great way to showcase the bold colors and flavors of summer without generating a lot of heat in the kitchen: they look super-fancy, they accentuate and highlight those lively summery flavors, and will thus earn you major bragging rights. Best of all, you don't have to sweat (much) to earn these.

Because summer is still my season of "why not?," I decided to mix things up a bit. My goal was to come up with a soup with maximal cooling power. An obvious way to cool things down is to freeze them: why not use cold soups as a base for savory ice creams and granitas? (This isn't just my heat stroke speaking; other cooks have done this with great succcess.) A less obvious -- but much older -- trick is to cool things down by adding heat: hot chilies are favored in hot climates not just because they grow there, but because their heat stimulates perspiration -- which results in cooling. And even eating chilies in an air-conditioned dining room can be therapeutic: an energetic little blast of fire may be just what a jaded palate needs at the end of a long, muggy day.

My experiment resulted in combo of two shape-shifting soups: a creamy, chile-spiked avocado-coconut soup and a cooling tomato-mint gazpacho, served with frozen avocado ice cream and frozen gazpacho granita. The combination of icy, spicy, creamy, and tangy tastes and textures is both cooling and stimulating. Who says icy treats have to be sweet?

Fire and Ice

Tropical Avocado Soup and Ice Cream

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 (15-ounce) can light coconut milk
1 large clove garlic
1-1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 minced serrano chile
1/2 teaspoon. minced lime zest
1/4 cup chopped minced cilantro
2 ripe avocados
salt to taste
lime juice to taste

1. Heat a saucepan over medium heat, add oil, then add the garlic, ginger, zest, and chile. Saute about 2 minutes, or until the ingredients start to become limp and release their scent.

2. Reduce heat to low, add coconut milk, stir, and let simmer over low heat about 20 minutes.

3. Mash the avocados, add to the soup base, mix with an immersion mixer or transfer to a blender and mix until the mixture is smooth. If soup is too thick, thin with water as needed.

4. Then add a tablespoon or two of fresh lime juice and add salt and extra lime juice to taste. Bear in mind that cold soups need to be seasoned a bit more aggressively than warm ones.

5. Chill the soup and keep it refrigerated until ready to serve. Whisk thoroughly and stir in cilantro just before serving.

6. To make the ice cream: pour about 1 cup of the soup into a bowl to form a shallow layer. Place the bowl in the freezer. Stir the mixture regularly as it freezes to break up any ice crystals. Keep frozen soup covered.

Minted Gazpacho and Granita

2 cups peeled, coarsely chopped tomatoes (about 2 large)
1 cup peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped cucumber (about half a large one)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
Salt to taste

1. Put all ingredients except the salt in a blender and blend until smooth. Add salt to taste (see notes in step 4 of the preceding recipe), mix thoroughly.

2. To make the granita: Pour about 1 cup of the soup into a bowl to form a shallow layer. Place bowl in the freezer. About once an hour, remove the bowl from the freezer and break up any large frozen pieces with a fork before returning the bowl to the freezer. The granita is ready when it forms grainy frozen crystals.

Final Assembly:

1. Since the frozen soups tend to freeze harder than regular ice cream, remove them from the freezer about 10 minutes before serving to allow them to soften a bit.

2. Pour a small portion of each soup into a small bowl or cup and top each with a small scoop of the opposite frozen soup. Serve each diner two bowls of contrasting soup. Then you will have both the small-plates trend and the savory ice cream trend covered in a single dish. Trendy you!

Alternate presentation: transfer the chilled soups into measuring cups or other receptacles with pouring spouts. For each serving, hold a pouring container of soup in each hand and simultaneously pour a stream of each down opposite sides of a a shallow soup bowl (pour slowly). Ideally, each soup will occupy half the bowl with a neat dividing line between them. Then top each half with a small scoop or quenelle of the opposite frozen soup. Serve immediately.