Savor the Season

By Chef K. Marie Paulk

Here we are in the middle of summer. Can you believe the year is almost halfway over? It’s time to start thinking about how to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of the season. If you’re thinking that I’m going to be covering summer cooking, you are correct! If you guessed grilling, you would be incorrect. I’m instead going to discuss the next best thing: summer soups. It may not sound as exciting as grilling a ribeye, but it really can be just as flavorful.

My favorite is the import from Spain, gazpacho, but with a twist—a creamy gazpacho. For centuries Spanish field workers combined their leftover odds and ends to make a tasty potage. The tomato wasn’t even added to the soup until the explorers brought it back from the New World. Every region of Spain prides itself on its version of gazpacho, but Spain’s southernmost region, Andalusia, is the soup’s true home.

This recipe is a simple blend of cucumbers, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and bread added for body. I would recommend a few modifications to make a creamy gazpacho. When adding the olive oil, drizzle it in so the mixture can emulsify, creating a silky texture. Avoid English cucumbers, as they have higher water content than regular cucumbers, which only require a few extra minutes to scoop out the seeds. Salt your vegetables at least an hour before you purée. Also, before you purée the vegetables, put them in a strainer and capture the vegetable liquid in a bowl. Soak your bread in that vegetable liquid before you add it to the soup. If you make the gazpacho the night before, it will allow the flavors to intensify, much like a tomato sauce, and you will have a richer tasting soup. Sound simple enough? But what about all the other vegetables available to us now, like asparagus, carrots and sweet peas?

Grilled asparagus is great, and it’s just as good blended and made into a soup. Freshness is key; if they give off an unpleasant odor, they’re too old. The ends should be moist, not dried out. To keep the asparagus fresh, stand the spears in shallow water in your refrigerator, but do so only for a couple of days. Some feel the thicker spears are the more tender and sweeter — and for a soup, I prefer them — but I would favor the thinner ones for grilling. White and purple asparagus are now more commonly available, too. The white varieties are mounded with soil to keep the sunlight out, because the spears develop in darkness (they don’t produce chlorophyll). Their skin is a bit tougher and the flavor is milder. If you happen to find purple asparagus, add vinegar or lemon juice to the spears before cooking to prevent their discoloring. A purple asparagus soup would be very pretty and a great way to stump your guests. I use a sautéed leek and yellow onion along with a homemade vegetable stock for my asparagus soup to make it even more flavorful.

Now, carrots—one of my favorites. I love their many colors, from purple to white, and their shapes, slender to chubby. Their flavor, however, is what I love the most. Luckily, carrots are available throughout the year at the local grocery store and are always good! I find the carrots with the best flavor are those that are harvested in the late spring and early summer. Carrots from late summer to early fall have a more complex and sweet flavor, which is the result of the colder temperatures converting the roots’ starches to sugars; roasting these carrots is the best option. The shelf life for a carrot is relatively short: baby carrots hold up for about five days and a more mature carrot should last about two weeks. As such, store your carrots in the coldest part of the refrigerator and keep them in a plastic bag. The combination of ginger, fennel, leeks, and carrots make a wonderful soup.

While not my favorite, I know that split pea soup remains very popular. The sweet pea is hard to find and keeping them fresh is the issue. The travel time between the growers and the market is even enough to dry up their juices, turning the sugars into a starch. The pod should appear swelled—but not too big, or you will find the peas inside will be too starchy. If the pods are too small, the pea will probably not be larger than a small bead. The peas themselves should look moist and not too big. Fresh sweet peas, spinach, and coconut milk will make a delightful soup.

There are a lot of ideas for summer soups, which could be an added treat on a summer day. Grilling and a cool soup for dinner will always make a winning combination. As an added plus to making your own, you can control the sodium, mainly by using Kosher salt instead of table salt. If any of these recipes seem interesting, I will post them on the Local Happenings website. So enjoy all the gifts we’re about to receive from the earth (fruits included)—the season won’t last very long.