Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Postcard from Cucumber Country

A friend sent me this very cheery postcard from a trip to Europe: armfuls of cucumbers surrounded by the reigning prince and princess of the cucumber capital of Germany - Spreewald, about an hours ride south of Berlin. It sounds like an idyllic area: a protected biosphere where the cultivation of mostly cucumbers conforms to carefully controlled sustainable agricultural practices and acres of forest land are protected from all but eco-friendly tourism. Miles of bike paths course through fairytale villages, along the banks of the river Spree (Berlin's main river) and alongside even more acres of rolling farm fields.

The cucumbers are prized in Europe; they are smaller and a bit more flavorful than the long English or Holland variety. Compared to American varieties, they would be somewhat between a Kirby and the Persian cucumbers in texture and flavor, just a little larger. Spreewald Gherkins, pickled, are a protected trademark throughout the EU. (They achieved international renown in the 2006 foreign comedy, Goodbye Lenin, in which they were featured as one of the best loved food tastes from the former East Germany.) And the recipe for the pickles is of course a closely guarded secret among the 20 or so registered growers: ingredients such as basil, lemon balm, grape leaves, cherry leaves or walnut leaves give Spreewald gherkins their special sour, spicy taste.

Spreewald cucumbers are now in season, so my traveling friends report, and everywhere they went cucumber soups were featured on local menus. While no one would divulge the secret of the special local pickling brine in the Spreewald preserves, everyone seemed happy to share their recipes for the soups made from the fresh cukes! And my good friends knew that Souperlatif was ready to try them all, albeit with American-grown varieties.

Just in time for the super fresh local cucumbers I found at the market here is a basic cucumber preparation, a soup starter as it were, which serves for any number of variations of chilled, creamy soups. Good news is that this kind of soup needs no cooking - the cucumbers steep with salt and sugar to soften, and are ready to season and serve in under an hour.

You will need a box grater and the following ingredients:
- 3/4 lb of cucumbers
- 1 medium onion -
- 1 whole garlic clover
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar

Peel and half the cucumbers lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Using the middle grade of the grater, grate the cucumbers into a bowl. Peel, halve and grate the onions as well. (Even if the onion makes you teary, resist the food processor: the blade action won't break down the cells of the onion as well as the grater, and will leave you with the wrong texture.) Drop in a whole garlic clove into the mix, and sprinkle on the salt and sugar. I used a cotton, non-terry dish towel to line the bottom of a colander and poured in the cucumber puree, setting the colander above a bowl to drain. (Several layers of cheese cloth will also do.) The salt and sugar leaches out water from the cucumber and sweetens or cures the onion. After 4o minutes or so, quite a bit of juice will have gathered in the catch bowl, along with most of the dissolved salt and sugar - you won't need this for the soup, and it can be discarded or saved for veggie broth. Use the towel or cheese cloth to squeeze out as much water as possible, and the remaining puree, minus the garlic clove, is ready for a soup.

Simple is always best: mix the puree with 1-1/2 cups of light, very clear and degreased chicken broth, chilled, and 1-1/2 cups of Greek style yogurt or creme fraiche. Among the variations my friends described, pretty classic, are the following:
1. Mix in some zest of a lime, fresh ground pepper and serve just with finely minced parsley.
2. Same as above, but use lemon zest and minced dill.
3. Puree the yogurt or creme fraiche with a diced avocado before folding into the cucumber and broth, mix in a teaspoon of lemon juice and top with chives or cilantro.
4. Season puree with 1 tsp or less of curry powder, top with finely sliced green onions, and serve with toasted pitas and chutney.
OR, as in the picture below, serve with a drizzle of flaxseed oil (the traditional flavoring in Spreewald country!), a spritz of fresh squeezed lemon juice and fresh herbs.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Red, White and Blue Soup

While everyone is firing up the grill for the Fourth, Souperlatif is in the kitchen whipping up dessert soups: a great idea to bring along to the Fireworks; one, a spiced blue blueberry potion travels hot in the thermos for a warmer-upper, and a chilled red berry creamy soup for a warmer weather cooler.

Fruit soups are ever popular in Europe, either for dessert, or sometimes as breakfast for the kids. Thinking "blue" for the red, white and blue, I remembered a hot fruit soup they have in Sweden (and if you live near an IKEA, you can even get it local!). The Swedes call it blåbärsoppa, soup of the bilberry (not exactly our American blueberry, but close in appearance and taste), and the spiced quaff is often served to skiers just in from a run, as a warm- up beverage. In summer, they drink it cold, and the bit of corn or potato starch makes it wholesomely thick.

For my red soup I needed only a fresh idea for red berries - not a smoothy kind of thing, and not cloyingly sweet red pudding either. I experimented and came up with a lovely pale red straw-raspberry soup, flavored with lemon grass, vanilla and a spike of ice wine (a moscato would also do.) The lemongrass is softer than lemon peel and is becoming my favorite way to add a little lemon to a dish, especially that it is now so easy to find.

Both these fruit soups are definitely not just pureed fresh fruit - they are, as soups should be, a blend of flavors that can only be achieved through cooking. But both are only gently cooked, and thereby avoid the scorched taste of stewed fruit preparations.

For a true white soup, I just plain ran out of time! A dollop of cream as garnish will have to do (and not bad, at that). So on with the Red, (White) and Blue.

The Straw-Raspberry Soup

2 quarts cut up stawberries and raspberries
1/2 vanilla bean
2 stalks of lemon grass, each snipped into 4" lengths
1/4 cup or less brown sugar
1/4 cup ice wine
1/4 cup creme fraiche

Place berries, lemongrass, vanilla bean and sugar in a saucepan and allow the sugar to draw out some of the juices - 30 minutes to an hour. Bring to a boil and gently simmer until the strawberries are soft. Remove the vanilla bean and the pieces of lemongrass. Stir in the sweet wine and cook just until the alcohol is burned off. Remove from the heat and puree using an immersion blender. Heat the creme fraiche in the microwave (15 seconds) and fold into the soup. Test the consistency: you may add a little water or more a splash of wine to thin out a too thick puree. Serve lemon peel curls and/or a decorative basil leaf.

For the Blueberry Soup (Blåbärsoppa)

6 cups blueberries*
3 cardamon pods
1 cinnamon stick
zest of small lemon
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup apple juice
1 cup cold water
2 tablespoons corn starch
for garnish:
1 cup whipping cream and
1/2 cup creme fraiche

Bring the blueberries, sugar, spices, lemon zest and apple juice to a boil and simmer until the fresh berries have popped, the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is fragrant and bubbly - 5 minutes. Strain through the fine mesh screen of a food mill - a food mill will trap more of the tiny seeds from the blueberries than a blender - and return the liquidy puree to the saucepan. In a separate cup, dissolve the corn starch in the cup of water. Over medium heat, add the corn starch mixture into the blueberry puree and continue cooking until the broth begins to thicken - this occurs just as it comes to a boil. Remove immediately, cool, and chill at least 5 hours at least 4 hours if serving cold. For warm soup, heat gently to a sip-able warmth, not hot. Serve either the hot or cold with a dollop of whipped cream. An especially nice touch is a mix of whipped cream and creme fraiche: whip 1 cup of cream and fold in 1/2 cup of creme fraiche, then whip together until cream peaks.

* I like to add at least a cup of thawed frozen berries as part of the 6 cups. The frozen are usually darker and add a deeper flavor as well - more like the actual bilberries.