It’s the middle of summer — the days are hot and humid and stretch on for hours, seemingly endless, until finally they melt into those high summer apricot and lavender skies — and I can’t get enough of it.
I love the feel of the sun, the smell of the air and the water; the coconutty smell of sunscreen. I love ducking into the air-conditioned bus to escape the muggy, oppressive heat of Manhattan and heading home for weekends of beaches and hammocks and local wine. But perhaps more than anything, I cherish this season that brings wave after wave of lush new produce. Each week, it seems, a new crop sweeps into the farmer’s markets; a new jewel-toned addition to the summer palette of bright yellows and reds, deep purples and creamy greens.
Now I don’t like to play favorites with my vegetables, but there is something magical about the arrival of sweet corn, those perfect little rows of velvety pearls that turn buttercup yellow with a little heat and pop in sweet little bursts between your teeth…. Um, wow.
So when last week I received a report from my darling mother that the corn was in early this year — that it was already flooding farmstands by the bushelfull, well in time for Fourth of July festivities — I was thrilled. And I wasn’t the only one. I could tell from the tone in which my mother gave this report that she was pleased as punch with herself for being the bearer of such wonderful news.
In the days leading up to the holiday weekend, visions of sweet corn chowder danced through my head, distracting me from paying attention to things like my job, conversations, crosswalk signs…. I simply could not WAIT to get home and into a big kitchen with a huge armload of corn and some fresh milk.
There was, however, just one problem: it was really, really hot last weekend. Really hot. Like, record-breaking, haven’t-seen-temperatures-like-these-since-nineteen-ninety-nine hot. And despite the fact that my parents are far less stingy with the air conditioning than I am, the thought of simmering a chowder on the stovetop for a few hours sounded like the very last thing I wanted to be doing.
Have I ever told you that I am a firm believer that when life hands you lemons, you should make lemonade? Or lemon bars (and share them with me)? Or that when one door closes, another one opens? Because I am a firm believer in both of those things.
Rather than force my way through the corn chowder fantasy, I decided I would still make a soup — but a cold one. One that did not involve any cooking whatsoever.
My mother, perhaps feeling subconsciously guilty for getting me all excited about the corn in the first place, mentioned a cold cucumber soup she used to love. My ears perked up: I was intrigued. This was the cold cucumber soup that my beloved Babci used to make, and just about everything Babci made had been delicious (and, perhaps more importantly, cherished simply for being hers).
That said, as soon as I heard my mother utter the word “simmer”, the intrigue had been replaced by disappointment: she’d lost me. The words “chicken” and “stock” were just two more nails in the coffin. (I am so NOT a fan of meat stock-based summer soups.)
But mom wasn’t backing down: she liked that cold cucumber soup, by golly, no matter what I thought of the chicken stock base. Furthermore, she had already bought everything she needed to make it for the weekend, and would be doing so as planned.
Well, well, well: it looked like we would be having a friendly little cook-off — or, to put things nicely, a “tasting”. (If we were putting things not-so-nicely, and if this involved anyone other that my mother, and any recipe other than my Babci’s, I believe the word “smackdown” may have come into play. I was taking this chicken broth monstrosity down.)
Or at least, that’s how I thought it was going to happen.
Turns out, after all that, mom totally forgot about making her soup until mine was being ladled into bowls at the dinner table. But after a little gasp of surprise, and a momentary hesitation, she rallied, lifting her spoon with considerable relish. Mom’s good at rolling with the punches like that.
Ultimately I think she was just glad there was cucumber soup to be had, renegade stock-less methods and all.
After admiring the soup’s pale green hue, I followed suit and lifted my own spoon… and was in cucumber heaven. It was everything I had hoped it would be: chilled, a little tart, a little creamy, and totally refreshing — like the culinary equivalent of taking a dip at the beach. It was exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t sure if it was exactly what mom wanted, but she seemed happy enough with it, and everyone else seemed to like it, so I figured that was that.
The next afternoon mom and I are alone in the kitchen when she turns to me, real casual-like, and confesses: she actually liked my cucumber soup — wait for it — better.
Better than Babci’s? After a thoughtful moment, a gentle “yes”: better than Babci’s.
I like to think Babci would be proud.
Chilled Cucumber Soup with Basil and Mint
(serves 4 as a meal, 6 as an aperitif)
- 4 medium/large or 6-7 small (kirby) cucumbers
- 1-2 lemons
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 small yellow or white onion
- 1 small bunch each basil and mint
- 1 ripe Haas avocado
- 1/3-1/2 cup plain Greek (or strained) yogurt
Peel the cucumbers. If you’re using larger or fatter cucumbers, I recommend slicing them in half lengthwise and using a spoon to scoop out the seeds. Slice cucumbers, toss with a liberal sprinkling of coarse salt and the juice from half of a lemon, put them in the fridge and go do something else for an hour or three. (This helps to coax some of the water come out of the cucumbers, which makes it easier to puree them later.)
When your laundry is done or your silver is polished, peel and roughly chop the garlic clove(s) and half onion. Wash the basil and mint and remove the leaves, discarding the stems. (If you don’t like basil and mint, a) I don’t understand you and b) I suggest dill instead. Cucumbers and dill: a classic combination.) Halve and peel the avocado, discarding the skins and pit. Put all of this into a blender or food processor. Then grab those cucumbers from the fridge and tip them in there too, liquid and all.
Squeeze the remaining half lemon over everything and then puree the heck out of it, until everything is looking kind of soupy. Spoon in the yogurt and puree again until everything is blended together.
Give it a taste. You may want to add a little more onion, another clove of garlic, or perhaps just some more lemon juice and salt.
Once everything is blended to your tastes, put it in the refrigerator and go to the beach for a few hours to allow the flavors to integrate and do their thing, and to make sure it’s well chilled for when you get back.
Come home, dust the sand off your feet, hang up your towel and you’re ready to eat!
There are a number of ways you can serve this soup — garnished with a sprinkling of snipped chives or finely chopped radishes, topped with sliced avocado, or drizzled with some yogurt thinned with lemon juice and a pinch of salt and ground cayenne — but despite all my big talk about being adventurous, I also happen to be a bit of a purist. I prefer my soup naked, sans garnish, alongside little slices of bread spread with good butter and thinly sliced radishes.
But you can serve this however your little heart desires. It’s a free country, after all.