Lovin' spoonful

Luxurious soups for an Indian summer
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Most British people think of hot soups as being cold-weather food. You know, a hearty lentil, a thick pea-and-ham or a robust oxtail - the ones that keep the cold out. In summer, most of us would rather have a bowl of gazpacho, a vichyssoise (although leeks are, irritatingly, out of season during the summer), or a taste of cold, jellied borsch.

Yet on a continental holiday, we would not turn down a steaming, aromatic bowl of soupe de poisson or its more magisterial big brother, bouillabaisse, fiddled with and supped at in the old port of Marseilles, slap-bang in the middle of a hot August day. Nor would a fragrant bowl of Provencal soupe au pistou - vegetable soup with basil - or a spiced broth of chickpea kicked by cumin and coriander seem out of place. And then there are those other aromatic soups that do not have to be eaten piping hot, simply warm and sunny.

In Perugia, last year, I ate a bowl of very good cool minestrone. According to my learned English friend - who is a fine cook and who urged me to try some - the idea of cold Italian vegetable soup was not some newfangled, fashionable idea along the lines of "If Spain has gazpacho, why can't we have a cold vegetable soup, too!"

Given punch by a slick of pesto, this cool minestrone was - and is - delicious. In retrospect, I suppose the most accurate term to describe its temperature would be "room".

A similar tepid slop - or in this particular case, a "pap" - is the famous Tuscan speciality pappa al pomodoro. I first ate this about 13 years ago in a small restaurant up in the hills behind Fiesole outside Florence. Well, to be honest, it was my friend who ate it, but I wished I had. I enjoyed my few spoonfuls of this deeply comforting, deeply rosy (rather than red) bowlful. Fragrant with basil, it is made from slowly cooked tomatoes, and is thickened with country bread and slicked by olive oil.

It did not, of course, aid my enjoyment one jot that the view was marred by azure-blue skies and rows of cypress trees, whose colour and slenderness resembled a sharp Windsor and Newton pencil. This recipe will appear some time in September, when I intend to talk tomato.

Moving over to Spain and, perhaps, into North Africa, soups using chick peas - garbanzos in the Spanish dialect - produce a fragrant broth, particularly when spiced with cumin, mint, coriander and some form of pimenton, either mild and warming or piquant to the point of fiery. It does not seem one bit out of place to sup at a bowl of something like this on a balmy summer's evening in Andalusia, or in a Marrakech backstreet.

Whether it is authentic or not, a spoonful of cooling yoghurt mixed with a little chopped fresh mint, slipped onto the surface of the soup, is delicious. It cools the soup - and the spice.

Returning home, where fresh green vegetables are bountiful just now, it is worth considering the joys of vegetables simply mulched with a slurry of overcooked potato. Broad beans, peas, courgettes, cucumber and shredded lettuce seem to me to be the ones to use. Cook them gently in butter (not extra virgin olive oil, for once) and perfume them subtly with chopped mint at the closing stages. Once again, this soup is best served warm. The merest hint of vinegar at the end lifts the flavours beautifully.

Warm and sloppy green-summer-vegetable soup, serves 6

50g/2oz butter

450g/1lb courgettes, peeled and cut into small chunks (not diced)

225g/8oz cucumber, peeled and cut into small chunks (not diced)

900g/2lb broad beans, podded and then blanched in boiling water, skins slipped off with your fingers.

450g/1lb fresh peas, podded (keep the pods)

1.1 litres/2 pints vegetable stock (the Swiss powdered vegetable stock called Marigold is perfect here)

350g/12oz potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks

1 cos lettuce, trimmed of outside dark-green leaves and then shredded

110g/4oz spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped (don't add too much of the green parts) salt and pepper

mint

6 tsp white wine vinegar

Melt the butter in a roomy pot and gently sweat the courgettes and cucumber until soft. Coarsely chop the pea pods and add to the stock. Boil for about 15 minutes and then strain. Discard the pods and pour the stock into the courgettes and cucumber. Add the broad beans, peas and potato and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, then incorporate the lettuce and spring onions. Check for seasoning and cook for a further 5 minutes. Chop enough mint to give you about 2 level tablespoons and stir into the soup. Remove from the heat, cover, and allow to cool to lukewarm before eating. Dribble a teaspoon of good quality white-wine vinegar over each serving.

Cabbage, tomato and chicken broth with basil, serves 6

Once again, this is a very successful soup served at room temperature, although it is equally good eaten hot. The chicken in question is the chicken broth, although you could add some of the meat (from wings, in this case, because they make the best chicken stock) for a more robust and filling broth. Find the freshest spring cabbage for the best flavour.

700g/112lb chicken wings

900ml/112 pints water

275ml/12 pint dry white wine

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

3 sticks celery, chopped

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 bay leaves

a little salt

3-4 tbsp olive oil

3 medium onions, peeled and chopped

450g/1lb spring cabbage, cored, quartered and shredded

700g/112lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped

salt and pepper

juice of 1 small lemon

a generous handful of basil leaves

Put the wings, water, wine, carrot, celery, garlic, bay and a little salt into a large pot and bring very slowly up to a simmer. Skim off the resultant froth from this process and then put to cook on a very low light for an hour to an hour-and-a-half; taste the broth from time to time until it tastes good and chickeny. Strain through a colander into another pan and leave to drip for a good 5 minutes. Pick out chicken wings and put onto a plate to cool; discard the rest. Strain the broth once more through a fine sieve and leave to settle.

Whilst the broth is cooking, warm the olive oil in another roomy pan and add the onions. Cook very gently until wilted and very soft. Add the cabbage, cover, and allow to quietly stew and braise until also soft and slippery. Tip in the chopped tomatoes and turn up the heat. Cook briskly for a few moments to drive off excess moisture and concentrate the flavours. Turn down once more to a gentle simmer.

Remove any fat from the surface of the settled stock with kitchen paper, then pour it into the cabbage and tomato mulch. Bring the whole lot up to a simmer once more and further skim off any scum if necessary. Check the seasoning and allow to cook for 20 minutes.

Add the lemon juice and the basil leaves, which should be ripped into small pieces, rather than chopped with a knife. If you want to add the chicken meat (freed of skin and coarsely chopped), add it for the final 5 minutes of cooking time. If you have some pesto, a spoonful stirred in at the last minute could only be a good thing.

Spinach with chickpeas, serves 8 as a tapa, or 4-5 as a soup

This recipe comes from my favourite book of last year, Traditional Spanish Cooking by Janet Mendel (Garnet Publishing, pounds 14.95). In Seville, she says, this is served as a tapa. The mixture turns out fairly sloppy, but is thicker than a "soup". I successfully turned it into more of a soup, by slightly increasing the amount of water. To compensate for this, I also upped the quantity of garlic, spices and vinegar. I suggest that you make it in the original way first, both out of respect for Janet Mendel's excellent recipe and to see how the dish should really be.

4tbsp olive oil

2 slices country bread (50g/2oz)

4 garlic cloves

1 tsp cumin seeds or ground cumin

10 black peppercorns

1 piece (dried) chilli pepper

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp paprika

1 tbsp wine vinegar (sherry vinegar would also be good here)

225ml/8fl oz water

750g/1lb10oz cooked chickpeas (if you use the canned ones, drain and rinse them first)

275g/10oz cooked spinach (or frozen)

Heat the oil in a pan and fry the bread and two garlic gloves until golden. Remove. In a mortar or processor, grind the fried bread and garlic with the cumin, peppercorns, chilli and salt. Dissolve in a little water and reserve. Into the same oil, chop the remaining 2 garlic cloves. Stir in the paprika and immediately add the vinegar, water and the mixture from the mortar (or processor). Add the cooked chickpeas and spinach. Simmer for 20 minutes. Serve lukewarm or at room temperature

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