One of the loveliest and most seasonal beginnings for a warm weather meal is a chilled puree made from seasonal produce.
Whether the occasion is a luncheon, casual supper or formal dinner, and whether it's served in the shade of a screened porch or patio, under the stars or by candlelight in the dining room, a cool bowlful of the season's best flavors will always be refreshing and welcome.
It's also the first course that is easiest on the cook, since chilled purees are exquisitely simple to make and can be prepared hours, if not days, ahead, freeing us up for those unexpected last-minute details that always seem to pop up.
Like most simple things, pureed soups do take a little finesse, but only a little. The most important thing to remember is that when a single fruit or vegetable is showcased, the other ingredients are always meant to stay in the background. Their job is to boost the flavor of that main ingredient and not to compete with it for attention. Even when an ingredient is introduced as a contrasting element, it's still meant to focus our attention on that main ingredient.
In the old days, purees were a luxury mainly because they were hard work: The food was rubbed by hand through a fine wire mesh sieve. But a good blender makes short work of this once tedious job, so this luxury is one we can indulge in often - and without a doctor's bill for tennis elbow.
Before we get into the recipes, here are a few tips for making magic with purees.
You can puree with a regular jar blender, a hand blender or the food processor, but regular jar blenders make the smoothest puree.
Let the soup cool a little before pureeing it, and never fill the blender jar by more than two-thirds. Boiling hot liquid spewing out of an over-filled blender is not a fun experience.
Transfer the puree to a bowl or other storage container for chilling. Let it completely cool uncovered before you cover and chill it.
When a puree is enriched with milk or cream, don't add it until you're ready to serve it: Milk and cream can cause the puree to sour more quickly.
Season any soup that will be served cold more highly than you would one that's served hot, since cold blunts flavors. But don't get carried away: You can always add more seasoning if it's needed after the soup is cold, but you can't take it out.
Chilled Avocado Soup
Avocado soup is a wonderfully easy chilled soup to have in your bag of tricks for warm weather entertaining from now until the first cool snap of autumn. Variations of this handsome soup can be found all over the Caribbean Islands and Mexico. To ramp it up a notch, add a spoonful of medium-dry sherry to each bowl and garnish with poached shrimp or lump crabmeat.
Don't add the cream until the last minute, since it will react with the lime juice and clot.
Â½ cup chopped shallot or yellow onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
4 cups chicken broth
3-4 medium-to-large ripe avocados
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (to taste)
Salt and whole white pepper in a mill
Ground cayenne pepper or hot sauce
2 cups chilled heavy cream or 1 cup cream and 1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion tops, for garnish
1-2 small red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded, and thinly sliced or diced, for garnish, optional
1 medium ripe tomato, cored, seeded, and diced, optional
1. Saute shallot in butter in a soup pot over medium heat until softened but not colored, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broth, bring to simmer, and simmer until onion is tender, about 5-8 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool.
2. Peel, pit, and slice 3 avocados. Puree in blender or food processor with broth, onion, garlic, and lime juice. Taste and season with salt, pepper and cayenne or hot sauce, stir, cover, and chill at least 2 hours.
3. Just before serving, stir in chilled cream, taste, and adjust seasonings. Peel and dice 1 avocado as garnish if liked. Serve garnished with diced avocado, and sprinkling of green onion and, if liked chili pepper or tomato.
Chilled Green Pea Soup with Thyme
Mint is the herb more usually paired with sweet green peas, but thyme is equally lovely with them.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup thinly sliced shallots or yellow onion
4 cups thinly sliced leeks (both white parts and tender greens)
4 cups fresh or frozen green peas
4 cups water
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves plus 1 tablespoon whole thyme leaves, for garnish
Salt and whole white pepper in a mill
1-2 tablespoons raw (turbinado) sugar, if needed
6-8 tablespoons heavy cream
Thinly sliced scallion greens or chives
1. Put butter and shallot in 3-quart pot over medium low heat. Cook, stirring often until wilted and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add leeks, stir well, and cook, stirring often, until leeks are wilted, about 5 minutes.
2. Add peas, raise heat to medium high, and toss until hot through. Add water, thyme, and season well with salt and a little white pepper. If peas are not very sweet on their own, add teaspoonful or so of raw sugar. Bring to boil and adjust to gentle simmer. Cook until vegetables are tender, about 15-20 minutes depending on freshness of peas (fresh peas will take longer than frozen). Let cool slightly and puree in batches in blender.
3. Taste and adjust salt and sugar and season well with white pepper. Cool, cover, and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight. Before serving, taste and adjust seasonings. Garnish with drizzle of cream and fresh thyme leaves and scallion tops.
Chilled Watercress Soup
Adapted from "The Power Greens Cookbook" by Dana Jacobi (Ballantine Books/2016). Jacobi says watercress makes this dark green soup sharply refreshing and keeps it light by using rice instead of cream as a thickener and then serves it garnished with just a spoonful of heavy cream floating so that just a little flavor-enriching fat is used to maximum effect.
1 5-6 ounce bunch watercress or 4-ounce bag
1 small onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon long-grain white rice
1 cup fat-free reduced-sodium chicken broth
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
4 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons snipped chives
1. Separate leafy tips and the thin, tender upper stems from tough lower stems of watercress; there should be about 3 packed cups. (Save any remaining for another use. Stems can be used for juicing).
2. In 3-quart saucepan, combine watercress, onion, and rice. Add broth and 1-1/2 cups water. Cover and bring to boil over medium-high heat. When boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 12 minutes. Remove from heat, and let sit, covered, 5 minutes.
3. Puree in batches in blender. Transfer to a heat-proof container, season with salt and pepper. Cool, cover, and refrigerate until well-chilled, 4 to 24 hours. Soup keeps up to 2 days covered and refrigerated.
4. To serve, adjust seasoning and divide among four bowls. At table, for each serving, fill tablespoon with cream and gently tilt it, sliding off cream to float over soup. Garnish with chives.
Vichyssoise (Chilled Leek and Potato Soup)
Yes, it's a little old-fashioned and perhaps a little hackneyed, but that's mainly because it happens to be really good.
In classic French cooking, leek and potato soup is pristinely white and only the white part of the leek is used. But I always add the pale, tender greens of the leeks, which give it a light green tint and boots the flavor. After all, fresh leeks are the main point of this classic soup. The other secret is to use water instead of broth, since broth can make it rather heavy-tasting.
Vichyssoise keeps longer if the cream is not added until just before serving.
1 pound leeks
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound Russet or mature Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cups water
Kosher or sea salt
Â¼- to Â½-cup heavy cream, optional
Croutons (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons minced chives or tender leek greens
Whole white pepper in a mill
1. Lay leeks flat on cutting board, slice off root end without removing root base, then, with knife parallel to board, carefully cut in half lengthwise. Wash each half root-end-up under running water, folding back leaves to wash away sand and dirt between leaves. Drain and thinly slice both white and pale tender greens. You will need 3 cups. Lay aside other greens for stock pot.
2. Warm butter in a heavy-bottomed 3Â½- to 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. Add leek and onion and sweat until softened and translucent, about 8 to10 minutes. Add potatoes, toss well, and let heat through.
3. Add water and raise heat to medium high. Bring to boil, adjust heat to simmer, and season with salt. Cook gently until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in batches with food mill, blender, or food processor. Let cool completely, cover, and refrigerate.
4. Just before serving, stir in cream and if soup seems too thick, thin with chilled water. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished sprinkling of chives and white pepper.