Sunday, July 25, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation & Learned to Love Chilled Soups

Almond soup with green grapes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Because my girls, ages 4 and 11, drive me crazy while we’re packing for a vacation, my husband and I have learned to pack on the sly and not reveal any plans until we are in the car. We tried this first a couple years ago for a trip to Disney World. We had crossed the Georgia-Florida line before they figured out where we were headed. I got away with the deceit again this year, with the girls having no idea we were leaving until the Saturday morning in June when we woke them up at 5 a.m., told them to get dressed and grab their loveys and blankies and pillows. We pointed the loaded-up minivan east on I-20 and evaded all questions regarding “where are we going?” and “when are we going to be there?”

When the signs outside of Columbia, South Carolina, started mentioning Charleston, my older daughter, Laura, dialed a clue. “Charleston, yay! I want to go to the beach!” My husband and I exchanged glances, but didn’t reveal the true vacation plans. Once in Charleston, we parked the minivan and ate at our favorite hometown restaurant, Jestine’s, home of some dandy fried chicken for me and crab cakes for my husband.

Jestine's Kitchen in Charleston, South CArolina by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Back in the car, we eased onto East Bay Street and Laura started looking for the hotel, which if you know Charleston, is kind of funny, because there are charming little inns on East Bay, but not the big kind of kid-friendly hotel with a beach Laura was thinking about. Down on East Bay, you can see the Carnival Fantasy cruise ship as it prepares for weekly Caribbean runs - I think it’s high time that Charleston is a cruise ship port - we all need another reason to visit and eat in this charming city.

We pointed out the ship to the girls and they noticed the show-off red and blue whale-tail /smokestack and the waterslide on the upper deck. “Doesn’t that look like fun,” we asked. “But where’s the hotel?” Laura replied. “Where’s the beach? C’mon, guys, where are we going?” It wasn’t until we pulled into the “Cruise Traffic” lane that Laura finally understood “We’re going on the boat!”

There are only a few subjects more tiresome than listening to a post-mortem on someone else’s vacation (childbirth stories and the play-by-play for little Janey’s soccer match spring to mind.), so I’ll mention just say that I was kind of cranky when I boarded the boat. Maybe my blood sugar was low - the sweet tea boost from Jestine’s had worn off by late afternoon. My mood dramatically improved once I was fed. I’m easy - just give me starched linens, fresh-faced waiters and a menu without chicken fingers and hot dogs, and I’m content. With the ship pointed south towards the Caribbean, the menu included warm-weather selections such as cold soups. Gazpacho the first night was low-calorie, tart and satisfying. Laura chose the Orange Sory, which I’ve come to believe is just melted orange sherbet garnished with tapioca pearls. Naturally, it’s one of the best things she’s ever eaten. The next night, she chose strawberry bisque, which was like a grown-up smoothie - sweet and pink and creamy. The service for the chilled soup is part of the magic - a soup plate with a garnish in the center placed in front of the diner, then the waiter reaches over with a small pitcher of soup and pours into the plate, from 10 o’clock to 10 o’clock.

Since our return home, we've experimented with cold soups - I made chilled cherry soup, thickened with a cornstarch slurry. I have plans for a cantaloupe soup once the melons become stinky-ripe, just crying out for a blitz with lime and honey and a dash of chile pepper.

almond soup grapes
Chilled almond soup with green grapes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The sweet soups are nice as a dessert course or a special treat for the girls, but for a starter, I like a savory chilled soup along the lines of almond soup. Sometimes called ajo blanco or white gazpacho, it’s simple and tasty, and no less kid-pleasing - Laura gobbled this serving down as soon as the picture was made. The traditional almond soup uses garlic, but I prefer the refreshing bite of shallots instead. This is light, unusual, vegan, satisfying.

Chilled Almond Soup

I use homemade vegetable broth, a snap to make and useful to have on hand.

Serves 2 soup bowls or 4 demitasse cups (very civilized)

¾ cup almonds, blanched preferred, but whole with skins ok

1 shallot

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh bread crumbs

2 cups cold vegetable broth

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Sliced almonds or green grapes for garnish

1. Toast the almonds in a skillet for a few minutes, remove from heat and let cool.

2. In a food processor, puree shallot, then add toasted almonds. Blitz until finely ground. Add olive oil and bread crumbs and process until combined. With the motor running, slowly pour in vegetable broth through the feed tube. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Finish with sherry vinegar.

3. Strain and serve in rimmed soup plates or demitasse cups.

I’ll end with a kid-pleasing cruise ship gimmick - towels folded into animal shapes. Each night, we returned to the cabin to find out what the cabin steward Igusti would create next: There were lobsters, manatees, crabs, swans, pigs and this. Dog or rabbit, you decide.

towel dog
Towel origami by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

<script type="text/javascript">
  var _gaq = _gaq || [];
  _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-21764820-1']);
  (function() {
    var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true;
    ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://ssl' : 'http://www') + '';
    var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);

No comments: