Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cool as a Mediterranean Cucumber

Just stopping in to say hello...and that I’m thinking of you. I thought I’d see what you are up to out there and catch you up.

We’ve officially slipped into another season around here and as charming as my little French chairs and table on the lower terrace are, they create some harsh shadows on the terre cotta tiles at midi (noon). In spite of an expanse of parasol unfurled against the first days of summer sun, thick waves of heat slither into the room as I type. Heat Slugs, I call them. Thick and fluid, the undulating currents of rising temperatures slink and slide over the threshold and take refuge on the cooler tiles inside. In no time flat, I'm in a giant solar oven. The upright fan, a brave and worthy soldier of cool, takes them on in battle but sadly loses by about 3 every afternoon. The last few hours of these very long days are tough as summer hits its stride. It’s more like Dante’s Inferno.

In such circumstances, this former California girl, away from the Pacific’s shore (and to be honest, she's just not that good with heat), is left to languish on a couch in a dark room with a tall glass of cool water and a stack of books (ahem! Monsieur JB: books, please!) at her side. Add one panting dog (in spite of a summer haircut) lying across her feet (which really doesn’t help either of us) and...well, you’re starting to get the picture of the weeks ahead in my little French summer.

If you are in one of the areas around the world that is also starting to sizzle, you can relate to how hot it is on the top terrace. I’d spare you the old standard, “It’s so hot you can fry an egg...blah, blah, blah,” to describe the sun baked tiles upstairs, but for the fact that, well, you can!

Oh, if only I had an air conditioner – an able antidote to the rising temps! Wait! I do have an air conditioner. Yes, dear readers, I bit the eco bullet and invested in a small portable air conditioner chez moi. It has an environmental rating of A - so I’ve got that going for me – and my intention/promise is to only run it a couple of hours to cool off the room in which I write and see clients during the day then roll it into the bedroom to run for an hour or so before I tuck myself in at night to give me a running start at a decent night’s sleep when August rolls around and the heat slugs have grown to fill the entire doorway. My carbon footprint will be just a tiny bit bigger but much less sticky.

The other antidote to summer heat? Chilled soup! This one is a veritable party, or festival, in these parts. A blast of Mediterranean sunshine delivered with a pleasant jolt of cool - as cool as my new air conditioner!

I’m a long time gazpacho lover and with a few tweaks here and there, this chilly savory treat has a new spin. I use red or yellow peppers for a sweet piquant kick rather than the green peppers usually called for. I prefer the hint of sweet to the bitter grassy bite of the green variety.

The dash of sugar and a generous schlug (not to be confused with the aforementioned slug) of balsamic vinegar corral and choreograph this raucous bunch and coax the new onions to shed their shyness and come to the front of the stage, singing together with the garlic in a full-throated flamenco performance as the rest of the Mediterranean mélange breaks into a festive and fast-paced flurry of a dance.

The cooling effect of green, important for the eye before anything ever heads to the belly, shows up in the cucumber. And if you like the sensation of heating up to break a sweat for more of a swamp cooler effect, then the Tabasco addition is for you. Otherwise, just hit the whole thing with a drizzle of good olive oil and you’ll be as cool as air conditioner in the south of France!

Bon Appétit!


P.S. if you happen to be out and about buying organic carrots for your horses in the next week or two, toss another pound in your basket. I’ve got another chilled soup recipe coming up that will have old Bugs Bunny swooning.

(Adapted from Soupes du Jour by Anne-Catherine Bley)

Serves 8

4 lovely new onions
2 cloves of garlic
1 pepper (red or yellow)
1 cucumber
1-pound (or thereabouts) fresh tomatoes (or canned whole tomatoes)
1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar
sea salt and pepper
3 tablespoons good olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2-cup water
a few drops of Tabasco (optional)

Wash all of the vegetables in cold water. Peel the onions and garlic and cut the onions into large chunks. Drop them into a food processor and pulse to a finely chopped consistency. Place this chopped mixture into a large salad bowl. Next, seed and cut the pepper into large chunks and place into the food processor. Repeat the pulse process as before and add to the large bowl. Do not peel the cucumber! The green color is important. Cut into chunks and repeat the pulse process in the food processor, adding to the mixture in the bowl when it reaches a finely chopped consistency. Stem the tomatoes and cut into chunks, repeating a final time in the food processor. When the tomatoes are finely chopped, add them and all of their juices to the large bowl with the other chopped veggies.

To the large bowl of the vegetable mixture, add the sugar, sea salt and pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Mix roughly and add the water to obtain a soupy consistency that pleases you. Check the seasonings and adjust, adding more vinegar if you wish or a few drops of Tabasco, according to your taste.

Refrigerate for at least one hour (longer if time allows) before serving.

Serve with croutons of toasted whole grain bread brushed with olive oil and rubbed with a cut garlic clove.


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