Summertime Soups from Italy

Soup might not come to mind when you are planning summer meals, but it can be an excellent choice. A light soup is refreshing and gives us the liquid our bodies need when the weather is warm.

summer soup 88 (photo credit: )
summer soup 88
(photo credit: )
Soup might not come to mind when you are planning summer meals, but it can be an excellent choice. A light soup is refreshing and gives us the liquid our bodies need when the weather is warm. Yet many common recipes for cold soups don't necessarily fit our menus. Often cold soups contain cream or yogurt (like creamy leek and potato vichyssoise or Turkish yogurt and cucumber soup) and aren't suitable for kosher meals that contain meat. Many other cold soups are fruit based, but a sweet, fruity start to a meal is not to everyone's taste. The Italians have the answer: summer minestrone. Although minestrone is most familiar as a hot soup, this classic vegetable soup is delicious cool or at room temperature. "Contrary to what you might expect, Italian minestre (soups containing pasta or rice)... are often served warm or at room temperature rather than hot or chilled," wrote Michele Scicolone, the author of 1,000 Italian Recipes. "Italians feel that extreme hot or cold temperatures mask the flavor." When I attended an olive oil tasting held by the American Institute of Wine and Food at Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, the minestrone beautifully illustrated this point. For me it was the highlight of the festive meal. Served at room temperature, the soup was drizzled at the last minute with extra virgin olive oil, which complemented the flavors of the fresh basil and the vegetables. Like the Italians, many cooks in the south of France prefer to serve minestrone's relative, soupe au pistou, lukewarm. They feel that the vegetable soup tastes best when the flavor of the aromatic pistou, a puree of fresh basil, garlic and olive oil, has had a chance to permeate the broth. There's another reason why summer is the best time to make these famous Mediterranean soups. This is the period when the classic stars of both soups - fresh basil and tomatoes - are at their seasonal peaks. Since cooks use whatever vegetables they have, these chunky vegetable soups come in numerous versions. Barbara Kafka, author of Soup: A Way of Life, wrote that "There are as many minestrones... as there are regions of Italy" and noted that "in Milan they add cooked rice and eat it tepid." According to Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, the authors of Cooking from an Italian Garden, there are other differences. "Milanese minestrone is distinguished from its Tuscan cousin by the addition of rice instead of pasta, peas instead of beans, and vegetables that are finely chopped, shredded or even pureed instead of coarsely chopped... as with all minestrone, it is just as good, if not better, the second day." In her definitive Italian cookbook, Il Talismano della Felicita, originally published in 1929, Ada Boni presented 31 minestrone recipes. Her summertime milanese minestrone calls for sauteed onions, leeks, fresh shelled beans, tomatoes, celery, carrots, zucchini, peas, cabbage and rice. It's finished with parsley, garlic and sage and served with Parmesan cheese. She noted that at other seasons Milano cooks make heartier minestrone by adding potatoes and fava beans to the other vegetables, using dried beans rather than fresh, and tomato paste instead of tomatoes. You don't always need lots of vegetables. In The Flavors of Sicily, Tasca Lanza gave a simple zucchini and rice soup recipe, for which she cooked zucchini with onion, tomatoes, lots of basil and olive oil, then added broth and cooked rice. Pecorino cheese and more olive oil provide the finishing touch. In Sicily, she noted, soup is often served at room temperature. Biba Caggiano, the author of Modern Italian Cooking, makes summer minestrone that "has the scent of freshly picked, sun-drenched vegetables" and needs neither rice nor pasta. She recommends eating it at room temperature to fully savor its flavor. Her light soup has peas, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, carrots, celery, potatoes, sauteed onion and garlic and is enriched with a little pesto. SUMMER MINESTRONE Follow the example of many Italian cooks and serve minestrone warm one day, and cool on the next; reheated pesto loses its fresh flavor. If you like, serve the soup with grated Parmesan cheese. To make pistou instead of pesto, omit the cheese and the pine nuts. 7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 5 medium garlic cloves - 4 whole and 1 chopped 2 stalks celery, cut in thin slices (optional) 1 carrot, halved and sliced 4 to 6 cups vegetable broth, or mixed broth and water Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 1/2 cups medium-packed fresh basil leaves 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional) 2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnuts (optional) 3/4 cup coarsely chopped chard or spinach 1 cup diced fresh green beans, or frozen cut green beans 3 or 4 small zucchini or summer squash (kishou), cut in cubes 1/2 cup frozen peas 1/2 cup cooked or canned white beans or chickpeas, drained 1 cup cooked rice, white or brown Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil and onion in a large saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes or until onion is very soft but not brown. Add 1 chopped garlic clove and celery and cook over medium heat for 1 minute. Add carrot, 4 cups broth, and a pinch of salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, make pesto: Chop 4 garlic cloves in a food processor. Add basil, cheese, pine nuts and remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil. Process, scraping down sides of container a few times, until mixture is well blended. Add chard, green beans and zucchini to soup and simmer for 7 minutes. Add green peas and white beans and simmer for 3 minutes or until peas and zucchini are tender. If soup is too thick, gradually add more broth and heat through. Add rice and heat through. Remove from heat and stir in pesto. Serve soup warm, lukewarm or at room temperature. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving. Makes 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.