Recipe for heat: Chilled soup

My mom taught me some valuable lessons while growing in the summer heat of southwest Florida. One, to truly dial down your core temperature, take a cool shower. She keeps a hotplate in the shed to cook on hot afternoons to avoid heating up the house and gardens only in the cooler morning hours. A couple of years ago while remodeling our house, I added my own coda. In the morning, prep chilled soup for lunch later in the day.

Chilled soup carries a stamp of posh. “Oh James, prepare the vichyssoise and the champagne for dinner, will you?” The first time that I can recall having chilled soup was as a impressionable 20-year-old college student at the home of a wealthy older man that I was interviewing for a story in the Chicago Sun-Times. His private chef served a wide, shallow bowl of soup of cucumber and melon. The flavor was so delicate, almost ethereal. I took almost as many notes grilling the chef about the soup as I did about my interview.

Since then, I’ve used up the bounty of my small gardens with the aid of an immersible blender. Carrot and ginger, melon, cucumber, you name it. Recently, I adapted this recipe from Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco for a charity dinner on Lopez Island. It’s become my favorite No. 1 all-time soup.

Chilled Asparagus & Spinach Soup
The original version of this dish calls for caviar. I made it for my charity dinner with whitefish caviar from the Seattle Caviar Co. The salty crunch pairs wonderfully with the subtle flavor. But for most days, a small pile of sour cream, lime and avocado would be my choice as a final garnish. You can add some sauteed shrimp or some crab if you feel luxurious. I use an immersible blender to puree the soup. If you don’t have one, you can pulse it in a blender or food processor, working in batches if necessary.
3 tablespoons butter
1 large leek (white and pale green parts only), sliced
2 shallots or 1/4 small onion, chopped roughly
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, ends trimmed, spears coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
2 cups chopped spinach leaves (about 3 1/2 ounces)
3 tablespoons parsley, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt, pepper

1/2 peeled pitted avocado
1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons sour cream
6 ounces of crab meat or cooked shrimp (optional)
4 oz. caviar (optional, yet wonderful)

Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and shallots or onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add asparagus and stock; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer until asparagus is tender, about eight minutes. Add spinach, cover and simmer until wilted, about 4 minutes. Add the parsley. Puree the soup until smooth. (See headnote.) Shift the soup into a large bowl, season with salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Cool slightly, then cover with plastic wrap and chill until cold about two hours or up to one day.

Just before serving, mix the avocado, lemon juice and sour cream in a small bowl. (If using crab or shrimp, add it into the mix.) Be sure to taste the chilled soup; often chilled foods need additional salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls and place a small bit of the avocado mixture in the center. If you go for the caviar option, add a bit on top of the garnish.

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