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Summer Soups: A Cool Quartet

I had never given much thought to cold soups before that steaming summer afternoon, as we sweated on the sun-baked pavement, our palms moist and our lips dry. With the idleness known only to childless couples on vacation, we'd squandered humid hours trying out vintage saxophones in the unventilated antique stores of a Hudson River town.

Our refuge, though, was in sight: a cool, dim eatery, crisp with white linen and nearly empty. As we took our seats, shedding the heat in palpable waves, the waiter brought forth a plate of chilled zucchini-mint soup. It was a pale, sweet platter of liquid refreshment. And unlike pretty much any other zucchini dish I can think of, it was gone in under a minute.

You'd think that cool soups, pastel-pale or jewel-bright, would be everybody's fallback food for summer. Could there be a better solution for dinner on a hot day? You wander in at sunset after a hard day's lounging in the sun and pull a chilled tureen out of the fridge. You blithely sweep off the cover and set to it with a silver spoon. Everybody's happy.

In practice, however, people just don't go for it, because the casual elegance of a cold soup doesn't come for free. With a few exceptions, those alluring cool soups still have to be cooked over a hot stove by somebody, somewhere, sometime, somehow. That glistening vichyssoise you love at 7 p.m. was a sweltering, churning mass of potato chowder you wanted nothing to do with 12 hours earlier.

Three of the four soups I'm sharing start life on the stove (one doesn't — that's a freebie). But I've made an effort to streamline them down to their essences. None calls for more than six ingredients, if you don't count salt and pepper. None takes longer than an hour to prepare. And I promise you, they're worth it.

Those hot, lazy summer days we once enjoyed? They're now a decade in the past and fast acquiring a sepia hue. We're toiling in the fields of parenthood, shoulder to shoulder with countless other couples. Yet the relief we feel when evening falls is greater than ever.

Like the sound of ice clattering in the cocktail shaker, or the first whiff of charcoal smoke from the grill, that first sip of cool soup is a one-way ticket away from the labors of the day. Gone are the hot hours gardening. The sweaty chores, the stifling commute, the shuttling from camp to soccer to music lessons — all consigned to the dustbin.

With any luck, even the hour you spent making soup earlier this morning will seem like a distant memory. It may even be a happy one.

Cold Soup 101

A really good cold soup depends on four elements. If any of them is missing, the soup is liable to fall flat. I made up these principles, though I'm sure you can find a whole philosophy of cold soups somewhere, probably in a French cookbook.

Color. As far as I'm concerned, any color will do as long as it's not brown, or even faintly reminiscent of brown. Brown is for warm, cozy November lentil soups. Brown summer soup just makes me sad. If you, like me, enjoy a colorful soup, be careful with your vegetables. You can stifle and sweat them in a closed pot within an inch of their lives, but keep an eye on them and don't let them brown. In red, fruity soups, acid is your friend, brightening and preserving the color. In soups made from green vegetables, it is your sworn foe. It will turn your greens to a horrid, defeated olive. So go easy on the lemon.

Texture. Unless you're deliberately making a chunky cold soup like gazpacho, the texture of a cold soup should be like silk. Nothing in it should remind you of the hard work of chewing. That means using a blender, followed by a fine strainer. Don't try to use a food processor. You need the churning, foaming vortex of a blender on its highest speed to do the trick. Don't try to substitute a colander or even a food mill for the strainer (unless you have a mill with a superfine disk).They'll just leave you chewing little mealy bits. Blending in cream, yogurt, buttermilk or half-and-half at the end also helps smooth things out.

Flavor. Summer soups demand a little tartness to liven up their deep and mellow flavors, which tend to fade while the soup is cooling. For a little smooth tartness, you can use buttermilk or yogurt. For a lot, there are lemon, lime and other citrus juices. Naturally acidic soups like roasted tomato, however, do just fine on their own.

Time. Soup needs at least four hours to get cold — period. (You can shave off a few minutes by cooling it over ice before chilling it, though it's hardly worth the trouble.) If you don't have hours of chill time, just wait and serve it tomorrow. Lukewarm soup is OK, but it just doesn't compare to the slow, deep effect of stone-cold soup. The best strategy for summer soups is to make them in the morning when you still have the cheerful disposition required to blend and sieve the soup. Also, you're not warming up the kitchen in the unbearable afternoon heat, and the soup's chilled and ready well before dinnertime.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.