IN THIS MOST UNEASY OF ALL SUMMERS, WE NEED A WAY TO STAY COOL.
I DON’T HAVE A BIG SOLUTION, BUT HERE’S A SMALL ONE: MY COLD CUCUMBER SOUP. BLISSFULLY CHILL, IT’S A GENTLE REBUKE TO AT LEAST PHYSICAL HEAT.
IT’S ALSO EASY TO MAKE, INFINITELY VARIABLE, AND A LOVELY PALE LUNAR GREEN. AND, SO GOOD.
Fresh, seasonal, local. These words on a restaurant menu once signaled the possibility of excellent food, carefully sourced.
But now the very future of restaurants is uncertain.
Now, we have made our way through a long, confusing, difficult winter in which many of us experienced for the first time in our American lives what empty grocery shelves look like, and many more were forced to learn how to cook for themselves, and then cook again, day after day after day.
Now, even middle-class first-world residents can easily (and uneasily), imagine a disruption in the food supply chain, an inability to acquire ingredients.
And, now, we are in a summer when, some some hoped, the virus burning through the world would lessen or vanish like a seasonal flu… but it didn’t.
So now, “fresh, local, seasonal” may be even more important than ever.
Farmer’s markets, many of which have done an admirable safe-shopping pivot to online ordering and from-the-car pick-ups, and CSA’s, are doing a booming business.
And many people who’ve never gardened before have started doing so, assuming they are lucky enough to own a piece of land with enough sun.
And by now, those new growers are well into discovering the classic gardener’s joys (Run outside right before dinner and clip some fresh basil! Finally learn to distinguish Italian parsley from cilantro!), and agonies (kale-eating Japanese beetles! bean-eating deer!).
And these new gardeners are also discovering the generous fecundity of certain vegetables. Particularly those in the cucurbit (squash) family.
Zucchini is legendary (and groaned-over) in its abundance, but cucumbers are equally prolific.
And yet, in a time when stinginess, selfishness, and distrust walk the land too often in some humans, it seems ungenerous to complain about a plant that is profligate in its gifts.
Besides: this soup.
For years, one hot weather staple almost always in my fridge is a large container of Cucumber-Yogurt-Green-Grape-Mint Soup.
Not just by the quart, by the gallon. I am sure I sip or spoon a bathtub’s worth most summers. I often bring it to potlucks or serve it to friends at summer dinners. It is almost always extremely well-received (except for the very occasional person who dislikes the acidic tang of non-sweet yogurt, or who can’t wrap his or her mind around cold soup).
To me and most people, though, it is just the ultimate in refreshing, summer-food supreme.
Yet this delicious summer stalwart is also as healthy, and easy-to-make as it is at-the-ready-and-willing in the fridge.
LITERARY ADVENTURES IN CUCUMBER-YOGURT SOUP LAND
In 2018, I brought a batch of it to the first staged reading of my new and first-ever play, UNTIL JUST MOISTENED: A Not-Quite One-Woman Show, with Crumbs.
UNTIL had been, to my delight, selected as part of the Arkansas New Play Festival. Because said first reading was going to be at 2:00 pm and I just knew none of us would get lunch, and it seemed to me insane to jump in without some nourishment, and feeding others is what I do — well, I brought a large container of soup, along with a whole-grain rice salad and some latte’d almond-milk, cardamom-spiced tea, to the venue. (Pictured left, just before that show — my long-time pal and collaborator on the play, Bill Haymes, and our director, Shana Gold, of TheatreSquared).
Soon Ruby, the costume designer, and Jenn, who read the stage directions, were asking for the recipe. Earlier, however, Bob Ford, TheatreSquared’s Artistic Director, had fallen enthusiastically in love with it. Bob was, thank goodness, serving as mentoring dramaturge to me for a week before the Festival proper started. He came over several blazingly hot afternoons to read with me and to let me do that extremely vulnerable first reading and work out my angst. Of course I offered him something by way of refreshment.
“I have iced tea,” I told him. “Or iced herb tea. Or, I have some cucumber yogurt soup that you can kind of half-sip, half-spoon…”
We use the phrase “his eyes lit up” to encapsulate someone’s eyes widening quickly with enthusiasm, agreement or recognition. Bob’s eyes really did light up in this way at the mention of the soup. I ladled the soup into a blue-and-white mug, gave him a spoon, and we sat, going over the lines, he asking questions of me, me asking questions right back, me receiving his gentle, cogent guidance, as he spooned and sipped.
After awhile I noticed his mug was empty.
“Would you like some more?” I asked him.
“Actually — well, yes, please, ” he said, “If you sure you’ve got enough and — ”
If I had enough? As I mentioned, I make this stuff almost by the vat, and I besides, I am of the school that believes that if you don’t have leftovers, you didn’t make enough. I always have enough (and count myself lucky that I do).
Every time thereafter Bob and I worked, I made sure there was Cucumber-Yogurt Soup.
JUST HOW EASY IS IT?
The following will illustrate just how fast and easy it is to make. (It will also illustrate just how prolific cucumber plants are, and, perhaps, how much less than sane and rational I may be).
One year, maybe 2010-ish, I was hosting the annual summer potluck picnic of a loose association of New England-based children’s book writers and illustrators; then about 60 or 70 of us. I strill lived in Vermont then.
I had spent so much time getting the house and lawn ready for all of us, I actually, for once, did not give much thought to what I was going serve (because, after all, everyone else would be bringing food).
By 11:00 the house was in order. Everyone was due at noon, and suddenly — yikes! Everyone else might be bringing dishes, but how could I, both a food person and the host, not provide something as well, besides the house? It just seemed inhospitable.
Well, back then, I had a big, vigorous vegetable garden. I’d only planted maybe a third of packet of cuke seeds, but that was way more than enough. I ran out, picked perhaps a quarter of a bushel of cukes, clipped a big honkin’ pile of mint, grabbed everything else I needed from the fridge, and proceeded to give my Cuisinart a major work-out, tossing batch after batch of puree into my biggest bowl, along with ice cubes which I figured (correctly) would melt down, both diluting and chilling the soup. There was too much of it to fit in my fridge anyway; that bowl, left over from my days as a restaurateur, has a capacity of three gallons.
No more than 30 minutes later, by noon, I had enough made for 60 people to have a cup. There it was on the table, cool and green, drops of condensation on the side of the giant-bowl-turned-tureen,telegraphing chill,greeting my colleagues and pals as they started to arrive.
By two, hours before everyone started to disperse, there was not a drop left.
Although I gave a recipe for it in Passionate Vegetarian, where it’s poetically titled “Lunar Gazpacho”, the truth is that while I follow the basic outlines of that recipe, I never follow the measurements. Thus it never comes out exactly the same way twice.
Sometimes it’s thicker, sometimes thinner, sometimes smooth, sometimes chunky. It’s always a little sweet from the grapes and it’s usually zinged with mint (though sometimes I use other herbs additionally).
It always has a little richness, both from the yogurt or kefir (omit them for a vegan variation, which if possible is even more refreshing, adding for richness some ripe avocado) and a small handful of nuts.
Whichever way I go, it’s always good.
When on my own and under a deadline, I have been known on occasion to eat for three meals a day, with just a slice of buttered wholegrain toast on the side.
But under normal conditions I have it with almost anything: a main-dish salad of some sort, a sandwich, a portion of leftover casserole eaten cold.
As noted, it is a natural companion to anything vaguely Middle Eastern, those nice amenable loosely Mediterranean dishes that can be served hot or cold but are best at room temp; marinated this and that.
But the soup also goes superbly well with a dinner off the grill.
BACK IN ARKANSAS
In 2018, I moved from Vermont back to Arkansas — not to Eureka Springs, where I had lived for 36 years prior to my Vermont move, but to Fayetteville, a small, lively, interesting and very kind Ozark city built around the University of Arkansas.
My beloved Alpha Dude was dubious about the state and the town initially — after all, he was a native Californian, living in New York City. But the region in general and Fayetteville in particular grew on him, and one day its magic grew on him so much that he said, “What do you say we buy a house together?” We did, in August of 2019. And then, in part to protect each other legally, what with home-ownership and the health concerns inherent in aging, we quietly married (we still haven’t yet had our big ceremonial public marriage). That was also in 2019.
And 2020: well, you know about 2020.
For us, it involved his decision to let go of his New York apartment, and manage a move during a period of pandemic, civil unrest, and curfews. And, from having had a relationship that had always had plenty of spaciousness, in which periodic separations were inherent, we were suddenly living together full time.
And, we had a vegetable garden, in the one tiny strip where where we get enough sunlight. The huge pleasure we get from it is in no way commensurate with the size of the garden. We have managed to grow chard, two kinds of kale, five kinds of beans, green onions, half a dozen herbs, tabasco peppers, borage, sorrel, a variety of lettuce called “drunken woman”, sunflowers, and zinnias.
As the world goes crazy, as the thermometer hits 91 day after day, as the Covid figures rise, as we keep to ourselves and regard in disbelief arguments about masks and social distancing, as we wait with baited breath for the outcome of the November elections, I am thankful to see the cucumbers are as generous as ever.
CHILLED CUCUMBER-YOGURT SOUP WITH GREEN GRAPES & FRESH MINT
Okay, loves, here’s the soup. This is given loosey-goosey, imprecisely: I make it differently each and every time, and so should you.
Combine in your food processor or blender:
- chunked cucumber *
- green grapes, washed, picked over, and removed from the stem
Pulse, to make a chunky puree. Add the following ingredients:
- a handful of almonds or walnuts (raw, unsalted)
- a few coarsely chopped green onions;
- a couple cloves fresh garlic (or, in season, garlic scapes)
- a whole lot of fresh mint, stripped from the stem (or fresh dill, or a combination of the two, along with a little cilantro if you like)
- a little optional agave to bring up the sweetness of the grapes
- salt to taste
Turn this puree into a large mixing or serving bowl, or a big refrigerator storage container with a lid.
Now, stir in enough liquid to make it the consistency of a not-too-thick, textured smoothie. Note on photograph to the left: because the ingredients and proportions vary slightly each time you make it, the exact shade of green varies, too. Sometimes it’s quite bright, sometimes more muted.
About half the liquid should be:
- unsweetened plain yogurt, buttermilk, Greek yogurt, or kefir
The other half should be
* water (I used to use vegetable stock but these days am using water.)
Whisk well, and taste. Refrigerate.
Eat/ drink / sip your way down. If you want to fancy it up, scatter some minced herbs over the to, some sliced cukes in half-rounds. Bliss on a hot afternoon.
* The quality of the cukes is one element that can make or break this. You want unwaxed; preferably Persian or Euro, but any variety will do as long as you’ve tasted it and ascertained that it is sweet, fresh, and crisp-crunchy, not bitter, and either seedless or young enough that the seeds are barely formed and tender. Generally, I leave part of the cuke unchunked, and dice it carefully, stirring it in at the end for texture.
VEGAN CHILLED CUCUMBER-SOUP WITH GREEN GRAPES, AVOCADO & FRESH MINT
To veganize this, you could use unsweetened, unflavored non-dairy yogurt, such as that made from coconut milk, but I think that substitution doesn’t really work with the flavors. Instead, when make it vegan, I simply omit that component, using all water for the liquid.
However, to give the creamy mouthfeel, I add a ripe avocado or two, blended up with the cukes and grapes. And to add the tang of the original, I squeeze in the juice of 1/2 to 1 1/2 fresh limes or lemons. These changes make a surprisingly large difference in the two finished soups, but dang — both versions are just so good.