We were talking with a friend the other day about cold soup, an idea that startles some people and does seem a close cousin to an oxymoron. But cold soup is lovely, and the question of the hour was whether gazpacho means cold soup, any kind, in Spanish or whether it's a certain soup.
Once the breakfast dishes were out of the way, the books on the kitchen wall answered the question. Gazpacho is a particular soup in Spain, created with finely chopped fresh vegetables, stale bread, garlic, olive oil and vinegar -- and served cold.
Even more particularly, gazpacho comes from Andalusia, a territory of eight provinces with Seville as its capital. But before it became a signature part of Andalusian cuisine, gazpacho had its roots elsewhere and probably arrived in Spain in a much simpler form than it has today.
Looking up the soup brought the Barcelona Olympic Games into focus. Not far from the main sports venues, various entrepreneurs from all over Spain were presenting their wares in little booths. Someone said the Andalusian tomato soup must be tasted, so I stood in line and paid for a cupful. Even out there in a fairgrounds kind of atmosphere, it was special -- not chunky the way we make gazpacho, but a smooth, mysterious soup that had blended so many ingredients that the taste buds could not sort them. If food can be exquisite (can be in this house), this was.
Back home, a little research revealed some of the ingredients, and family members who had also tasted that soup in Barcelona were asking why we couldn't make it. We worked out a decent imitation.
But we also enjoy that moment when the vegetable garden spells out our version of gazpacho, a tomato-based soup with cucumbers, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, green pepper, cayenne for a little bite, fresh ground black pepper, etc. And on the rare occasion when some is left over, we realize yet again that a day in the refrigerator just makes it better -- and harder to tell exactly what's in it.
Our first cold soup in Richmond, back when we still thought it was a silly idea, was made with plums. We had too many and when you grow too much of anything, you will try almost anything. We didn't do a practice run, just made it and served it to friends. The color, of course, was glorious, set off with a dollop of sour cream (the color-conscious Shakers would probably advise that it be served in a white bowl).
We graduated to cucumber, made a dozen different ways but great with yogurt and curry -- or mint -- and as refreshing as lemonade on a hot summer day. It's a perfect way to use one of those cucumber rascals who takes refuge under an oversized leaf and becomes too big. Scooping out the seeds and discarding them makes this bad boy an excellent candidate for the blender.
Another advantage of cold soups, obviously, is that you're mostly using raw ingredients, so there's no time at all over the hot stove. Peel, chop, blend and refrigerate.
My husband grew up on cold soup, but just one kind -- borscht. Most kids hate beets and many hang onto that feeling right into adulthood, but they might succumb to the soup served on Bradford Street in Pittsfield. My mother-in-law didn't make the heavy Russian version with chunks of beef and a beef broth base. Her borscht was meatless, brothless and breathless -- light, ruby red, a bit lemony, sweet and chilled. My father-in-law liked a small, hot, boiled potato right in the middle of the bowl. I preferred the sour cream and liked to swirl it through the deep color.
People can get arrested for shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, but you can part a throng by yelling "Hot soup" without needing bail. Cold soup has no power at all, but it's cool.
Ruth Bass is a former Eagle Sunday editor. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.