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Chillin’

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Cool, silky soups to boost your summer menu
Photo by Sarah LemonVichyssoise
Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/TNSThe cooling properties of cucumber are on full display in this gazpacho variation with yogurt, bell pepper and garlic.
Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCTChef Todd Aarons of Tierra Sur in Los Angeles, serves this melon gazpacho.

“Is there such a thing as, like, cold potato soup?”

Enthusiasm for food flagging amid a heat wave, my partner assumed he was grasping at straws. Little did he know the question would light a fire under my tepid culinary ambitions.

“Actually, there is,” I replied. “It’s called Vichyssoise, and it’s a pretty famous dish. Plus it’s delicious!”

It’s lighter than it sounds, too. The soup’s silky texture comes from pureeing soft potatoes with sliced leeks and chicken stock, inviting cooks to add half-and-half or cream at their discretion. Served with a lush green salad and fresh-baked, crusty bread, it’s one in an entire genre of chilled soups perfect for reinvigorating summer menus while keeping the kitchen cool.

Above all, chilled soups should be very, very smooth. Viscosity that can be sipped from shot glasses — a playful and elegant device for summer gatherings — is the goal.

Absent a high-quality blender or food processor, a fine-mesh sieve accomplishes this texture. Otherwise, cooks risk a dish that plays more on the palate like watery potato salad, or — in the case of gazpacho — straight-up salsa. Only distinct ingredients — whole corn kernels, for example — stirred into the finished soup should constitute chunkiness.

Save the salsa — I use that term loosely — for garnishing portions of chilled soup. Finely diced cucumber and Kalamata olives with mint over a dollop of plain yogurt nudge Vichyssoise toward Greek cuisine. Chopped hard-boiled eggs and snipped chives, meanwhile, are classic garnishes for this French-inspired dish.

For cucumber-basil gazpacho, halved cherry tomatoes make a striking contrast. Diced fruits and berries heighten the delicate flavor of cold zucchini soup. Edible blossoms can adorn any of these recipes.

Chilled soups also are a canvas for herb and spice-infused oils. Cooks with a surplus of garden herbs can blend them with fine-quality olive oil, transfer to a squeeze bottle, then free their imaginations to paint the surface of these soups, greens, pasta dishes, pizza, whatever appeals to the artist’s eye.

Smoked paprika oil adds a savory, vibrant flourish. To make smoked paprika oil, warm 1/3 cup olive oil with 2 tablespoons smoked paprika in a small saucepan, then strain through cheesecloth and cool before using.

Croutons are a popular topper for chilled soups, but cooks can fortify the soup itself with stale bread for a more satisfying meal. Soak the bread first, then squeeze out excess liquid before pureeing with the other soup ingredients.

When seasoning chilled soups, don’t be timid. Cold numbs the palate and dulls taste sensations, so these soups likely need more salt than a soup served hot. Acid is essential, with citrus juice often the predominant source. But a dash of vinegar, sherry and other spirits — tequila, vodka, even sparkling wine — impart depth and balance.

These soups’ cooling effects invite more spice, as well. Choose fresh ginger, jalapeno or hot pepper sauces, such as Sriracha. A sprinkle of sugar keeps the burn in the background while bringing out the natural sweetness of fresh-picked summer produce.

Make these soups as many as two days before serving and keep in the refrigerator. Stir well, or briefly blend again, if ingredients have separated.

Vichyssoise (Chilled Leek and Potato Soup)

3 cups peeled and sliced potatoes

3 cups sliced leeks, white parts only

1-1/2 quarts chicken stock or broth

Salt, to taste

1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream

White pepper, to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer the potatoes, leeks, stock or broth and a bit of salt for 40 to 50 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.

Pass mixture through a food mill or transfer it to a blender and puree until smooth. Pass milled or pureed soup through a fine-mesh strainer. Stir in enough of the cream to reach desired consistency, then season with the white pepper and additional salt. Oversalt slightly, as salt loses flavor in chilled dishes.

Chill soup. When ready to serve, ladle into cups and garnish with the chives.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Cold Zucchini Soup

3 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh parsley

1 sprig fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

4-1/2 cups chicken stock, divided

1-1/2 cups plain yogurt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the zucchini, onion, bay leaf, parsley and thyme with 1 cup of the chicken stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer mixture for about 10 minutes, or until zucchini is tender. Remove bay leaf, parsley and thyme. Puree mixture in a blender or food processor until it is of uniform consistency.

For a smooth soup, strain puree by pressing it through a strainer or sieve with back of a spoon. An unstrained soup will have a slight texture. Add remaining chicken stock, the yogurt, lemon juice, salt and white pepper and stir well to blend. Pour soup into a 1-1/2-quart covered container; chill for at least 1 hour before packing in a cooler.

Makes 8 servings.

— Recipe from “Picnic: 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menus,” by DeeDee Stovel (Storey, 2009).

Cucumber-Basil Gazpacho

Peel and chop 3 medium seedless cucumbers. Combine in a bowl with 2 ribs celery, chopped; 1 yellow bell pepper, cored and chopped; 2 garlic cloves, peeled; 2 slices white bread, torn into pieces; 1/2 cup Greek yogurt; 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil; 1-1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 cup water.

Transfer half of mixture to a blender jar and process until very smooth. Pour blended mixture into a clean bowl and repeat blending step with second half of mixture. Refrigerate, covered, until chilled.

To serve, blend 1 cup soup with 1 cup fresh basil and 2 tablespoons fresh parsley until very smooth. Stir mixture back into soup. Serve very cold. Makes 6 servings.

Heirloom Melon Gazpacho

2 cups cubed French baguette or batard, all crusts removed, and cut into small cubes (about 1 baguette), divided

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons white wine, Champagne or sherry vinegar

4 cups cubed, peeled and seeded melons (preferably heirloom, such as Sugar Queen, butterscotch, Ogen, Ananas)

1/4 cup diced red onion

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra oil for frying croutons

3 dried bay leaves, ground to a powder

Sea salt, to taste

Smoked paprika, for garnish

In a bowl, soak 1-1/2 cups of the cubed bread in the vinegar. Meanwhile, using a blender or food processor, puree the melons and red onion. Add soaked bread and vinegar to food processor and puree until completely smooth. With motor running, slowly add the 1/4 cup olive oil, then the ground bay leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning with the salt.

If soup is overly thick, add a few ice cubes, up to 1/2 cup, and puree until desired consistency is achieved. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and vinegar.

Transfer soup to a nonreactive metal bowl and chill before serving. This makes about 4 cups soup.

While soup is chilling, pan-fry remaining cubes of bread in a hot skillet with a little olive oil until evenly toasted and golden brown. Season to taste with a light sprinkling of salt.

Serve soup, garnished with a few croutons and a sprinkling of the paprika.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

— Recipe adapted by the Los Angeles Times from chef Todd Aarons at Tierra Sur in Oxnard, Calif.

Garden Gazpacho

2 pounds tomatoes, seeded

1 red bell pepper

1 green or yellow bell pepper

3 salad cucumbers

1 large shallot, peeled

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons red-wine or sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon hot red-pepper sauce

1-3/4 cups low-sodium or no-salt-added tomato juice or vegetable juice

1 ear fresh corn, kernels removed

2 teaspoons sugar

4 to 6 scallions, trimmed, and green and white parts thinly sliced

Fresh basil, sliced in shreds

Salt and pepper, to taste

Roughly chop about three-fourths of the tomatoes. Place in a food processor fitted with metal blade or a blender. Dice remaining tomatoes and set aside.

For the bell peppers, roughly chop half of each one and add to food processor. Dice remaining bell peppers and set aside.

Peel, seed and roughly chop 2 of the cucumbers and add to food processor. Leave peel on remaining cucumber, slice in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds and dice; set aside. Add the shallot, garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar and hot-pepper sauce to food processor. Process until smooth, for about 1 minute.

Transfer to a glass bowl (or leave in blender jar). Stir in the tomato juice, corn, basil, remaining diced tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, the sugar and half of the scallions. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

Chill for 2 hours. Serve in cups or bowls, garnished with a bit of diced bell pepper, cucumber and scallions.

Makes 8 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.