Halcyon Soup

Homemade soups should grace our tables more often; they’ve fed body and soul long before canning came along, and a good soup made with stout stock and proper care is a measure of the cook.

Gazpacho is a king of cold soups, an easily-made, refreshing and to most minds somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Old recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture–to me, it gums up the soup–take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over his, bread is a service requirement, and any well-textured bread will do.

This recipe is from my halcyon days in Oxford, which was an intoxicating environment, doubly augmented by the wine of youth itself.  I was desultorily studying for a degree, diligently exploring my capacities for vice, and desolately working in a string of eateries, among them The Bean Blossom Bistro, by some reckoning the first health-food restaurant in Oxford. It was located on Jackson Avenue across from the old telephone exchange.  The Good Food Store, Oxford’s first health-food store—then in its second incarnation—was on the corner next door. Carol Davis opened the Bean Blossom in 1978. We had worked together at the old Moonlight Café, which Betty Blair had opened up in the Hoka a couple of years earlier. Carol and I became fast friends during that time, and when she opened up her own place, she brought me with her.

The Bean Blossom, like so many small restaurants, was founded more on good intentions than experience. I don’t think we ever seated more than fifty people at one time, and usually far, far less. The kitchen could barely hold more than three people. Our menu changed daily, though we could always whip up a tofu burger, or a veggie stir-fry or a great salad any time you wanted it. Carol introduced me to a lot of new foods, including adzuki beans, which I cook like cowpeas, and tofu, which I of course deep-fry.

She also brought gazpacho into my world, and for that I am evermore grateful. I remember dipping the soup from a bucket in the bottom of our double-door refrigerator, a sheen of oil glistening atop the mixture. We served it with a variety of breads, and each bowl I eat now is a serving of nostalgia. Like memories themselves, this soup improves with age, but sours if mishandled.

Bean Blossom Gazpacho

Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though be careful, since the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet yellow banana pepper works well. If you want to add a hot pepper such as a jalapeno, fine, but I don’t recommend heat; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing rather than pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well, though there are countless variations.

Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. Add a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Let this mixture sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator in a sealed non-metallic container overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a little fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator. Serve in chilled bowls (freshly chopped chives are a nice touch) with good crusty bread.

Ukranian Cold Soup

This is kin to borscht, but a lot more accessible to people like me for whom a little bit of beet goes a long way. I’ve always been taken aback that cucumbers are so popular in northern Eurasia, which is typically all cabbage and turnips to me, but you’ll find okroshka in cuisines from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Despite its humble origins, okroshka is a colorful, appealing way to serve fresh summer vegetables.

Combine 2 cups diced lean cold meat (chicken, ham, beef, or fish), 2 cups diced cucumbers—use farmers’ market or “English” cucumbers, not those bloated, watery things in the supermarket—2 cups diced boiled potatoes, a small bunch of minced fresh dill, and one chopped bunch of bruised green onion. I usually peel the cucumbers but not the potatoes Add a diced boiled carrot and a couple of chopped or very thinly sliced radishes. If you have a beautiful right-out-of-the-garden tomato, slice it, drain it, dice it and throw it in. Everything should be in small pieces; think of a Nordic gazpacho. Boil six eggs, chop the whites, and add to the mix. Mash the yolks with a half cup of sour cream or yogurt, and mix with a cup of buttermilk. Add dairy mix to other ingredients along with two or three tablespoons of a Dijon or brown mustard. Add more buttermilk—kefir, if you happen to have some on hand—or rich (preferably jellied) broth and sour cream in parts to make a thick soup. Salt to taste, stir in the juice of half a lemon, and refrigerate for at least an hour or longer. Longer is better. Serve with garlic toast and sour cream. Keeps in the refrigerator for 3 days.