Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How to Make Chilled Cucumber Soup...and raw stuffed tomatoes

It was the front garden which caught my eye when we were looking at our place for the first time.  Though it was very neglected, overgrown, and smothered with five-feet-high weeds, I could see its lovely structure and over-all potential and barely paid attention to The Calm One's concern that there was a commercial refrigeration truck depot behind the property.  This is France with its unique approach to zoning after all.  Rejuvenation for various shrubs and trees, especially the lavender hedges, is still on going but marked improvement can already be seen. I am mightily encouraged.

Lavender, Shasta daisies, purple plum tree, and Rose of Sharon bushes

Dayo loves to play hide and seek in the lavender hedge, sleep in the ample crotch of the Box Elder tree, and hang out on the balcony while checking out the street action.

Reminding me that summer is in full swing which will morph too soon into early autumn are grapes beginning to colour.  There are enough starlings in my quartier to form murmurations.  Though I keep the bird bath full, it seems a refreshing drink of grape juice is still very attractive. Now that Dayo is with us, this is the first season in three I think I may be able to harvest a nice amount of grapes for making grape jelly.  To be on the safe side when Dayo is napping which takes out a huge chunk from his time spent as a grape guardian, I have pinned horticultural fleece using clothespins over the vines to ensure the grapes can continue to soak in the sun and mature to full sugary goodness.  I  have left a few vines for the starlings.

The prunes d'ente will be ready for harvesting in a couple of weeks.

The flowers taking the spotlight now are white and pink Rose of Sharon bushes and Black-eyed Susan vine.

Latin name:  Hibiscus syriacus

Black-eyed Susan is a cheerful vine with canary-yellow flowers boasting deep brownish-violet throats.  Though not hardy here, it is easy to grow from seed indoors starting in February.

Latin name:  Thunbergia alata

The cucumber patch is going bonkers with about four to five medium cucumbers daily with a handful of baby ones.  I chose this variety because it can be harvested both for tiny cornichons for pickling and also for salad cucumbers.  It starts out with a rough texture and then smooths out as it grows.

Chicken broth often is used as a base for cold vegetable soups, but as home-grown veggies are full of fantastic flavour, I made a veggie alternative, keeping out of mind the awful salt water passed off as commercial vegetable broth.  Goodness, what delicious stuff!  Of course, it is only as good as the veggies, so please if you do not grow your own, barter with your neighbour who does or get some at a farmer's market.

Carrots, onions, and celery or lovage is a good base.  Lovage is a perennial stand-in for the annual celery.  Once common in the kitchen garden, it has an intense--celery with a touch of anise--flavour so a little goes a long way.  For my broth, I added to this base scrubbed potatoes with their skins, green peppers, carrot tops, and overgrown green beans along with parsley, black peppercorns, bay leaf, and thyme.  I forgot to add my own mushrooms from the kit in the sous sol and will definitely do the next time.  Carrot tops were a revelation as I thought they would be bitter but they were sweet and oh so carroty.  Put what you have gathered in the right sized pot and cover with water.  Bring to a simmer and cover.

Within approximately thirty minutes and after straining, you will have an excellent veggie broth, and thanks to the carrots, it even looks like chicken broth!  The broth can be poured into ice cube trays, frozen, separated, and put into freezer bags.

The tender potatoes, robustly flavoured by the other veggies, were reserved to make potato salad.

Sliced potatoes, chiffonade of basil, and minced onions dressed in Mayo diluted with vinegar

Both cucumber skins and seeds can add not only a disagreeable texture but also bitterness so I peel and seed them, using a peeler to do both tasks.  Apparently, cucumber flesh itself can be amazingly bitter, so test a few peeled, seeded slices to make sure that the finished soup will be edible. 

Put in a blender the following ingredients until very smooth, about three minutes:

  • cucumbers, seeded, peeled, cubed, about 5 medium cucumbers, 4 cups
  • vegetable broth, 1 1/2 cups
  • garlic, one clove
  • green onions or chives/small onion, chopped, about 1/2 cup
  • lemon juice, freshly squeezed, 1 tablespoon

The green onions or chives tint the soup a nice light green.  Since it is easy to underestimate seasoning when a soup is served cold, I reserve doing that until it is well chilled. Pour into a suitable container and put in the fridge overnight or at least several hours.  Add 1/2 cup of  crème fraîche/sour cream, mix well.  Be aware the substitution of yogurt for the  crème fraîche may result in a less smooth texture as the lemon juice seems to curdle it.  If too thick for your tastes, dilute with some more vegetable broth.  Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper or red pepper flakes, add more lemon juice if preferred--common complaint with cold cucumber soup is that it lacks ooomph--and garnish with chives, sliced cucumbers, and shrimp.  A little lemon zest would be nice also. I like to serve this refreshing soup with French bread topped with shrimp salad.  It makes approximately four servings.

Ah, the tomatoes are turning red.  A favourite way of my using hefty beefsteak tomatoes is stuffing them with tuna salad and serving them on a bed of cous cous, with the whole garnished with chiffonade of basil, cucumber slices, capers, chopped garlic, and fleur de sel.  Though more expensive than regular salt, it does last a long time because it is not for cooking as its taste-boosting edge would be lost, but is reserved just for before serving.  I find if the best and most flavourful ingredients are used, portion control is much easier to implement.

In the bottom pot of a double boiler, barely cover the cous cous with boiling water.  Cover for about five minutes and let it absorb the water.  Using a fork, fluff it up with butter and season with salt.

Then transfer the cous cous to the steamer basket--filling the bottom pot with a couple of inches of water and steam it for about five minutes, occasionally fluffing it with a fork.

Wash and pat dry the tomatoes.  Carefully carve out the core with a knife and scoop out the insides with a small spoon, leaving enough wall to maintain shape.

Squeeze the scooped-out tomatoes over a bowl, then finely chop.  I freeze the juice to add when making tomato soup.

Mix tuna and mayo well, and then add chopped tomatoes and mix again, season with salt and freshly ground pepper if desired.

Stuff the tomatoes well--firming each spoonful before adding another, finishing with a mounding at the top--and place on the centre of serving plates.  Spoon cous cous around it, add sliced cucumbers, sprinkle with minced garlic, chiffonade of basil, capers, and fleur de sel.  If you want everything to be very cold, put in the fridge for about an hour.

Bon appétit!