Cold soups are not for everyone, a truth I discovered while seeking out the best cold soups in town. Cold soups are for those of us looking for a bright bite of cool summer. In a capable chef's hands, a pile of veggies can be transformed into a bracing swirl of flavor, filling you up without filling you up too much so you can stand up to the swelter.
There's a secret to making them that I haven't quite figured out. Just use veggies and vinegar and you're left with what tastes like pureed salad. I've attempted gazpacho over the years, but it always turns out like a salsa without the pizzazz. That's probably why, when cold soups appear on menus during the summer, I can't help but seek them out.
The first place in town that you go to for cold soups, of course, is Fast and French (98 Broad St., Charleston), which has been a source of gazpacho and cucumber soup for decades. The gazpacho is a chunky collection of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers brightened with vinegar. They also serve the classic Vichyssoise, a cold potato leek soup which is of American invention. The version at Fast and French will do in a pinch, but it's their cucumber yogurt soup that wins my loyalty. Frothy and spiked with dill, it's cool and surprisingly filling when eaten with a hunk of baguette. A cup is $5 and a bowl is $7, which means it's also a great lunch bargain.
Cold soup can also be revved up with different spices and flavors. At Pancito & Lefty (708 King St., Charleston), chef Todd Garrigan puts a Mexican spin on gazpacho with a heavy dose of chili powder, lime and avocado ($5). The smooth puree is drizzled with olive oil, providing a rich balance of strong flavors. Get the outstanding Wadmalaw Tomato Torta ($10) to go with it if you're still hungry and you'll have yourself an excellent dose of lycopene.
Gazpacho can also be white as it is at Rappahannock Oyster Bar (701 East Bay St., Charleston) where chef Kevin Kelly offers a white grape gazpacho ($13). The smooth and slightly sweet puree has lumps of crab, flecks of Marcona almonds for texture and dots of Fino sherry. Paired with a half dozen or so oysters, and you've got a perfect meal for a hot summer day.
Texture is an important element of cold soup. At McCrady's Tavern (2 Unity Alley, Charleston), a chilled carrot soup is served with a circle of peach almond chutney and topped with a dollop of creme fraiche artfully dotted with black pepper and dill ($12). It's a chunky, creamy and cool soup that has astonishing depth, thanks to the dots of lemon and lovage oil.
Upstairs at sister restaurant Minero (153 East Bay St. Charleston), they serve a big bowl of cold corn soup that needs to be eaten to be believed. Sweet corn is whipped into a frothy base the color of banana-flavored instant pudding and dotted with a generous number of spicy pickled shrimp. Someone needs to sell jars of those pickled shrimp. They have a kick of jalapeno that adds just the right amount of heat to the soup to remind you that you're at a Mexican restaurant.
If you're thinking cold soup would be great but can't bring yourself to leave the cool air conditioning and head to a nearby restaurant, here's a recipe you can try at home that Nathalie Dupree shared with me from her book, "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking."
Chilled Melon Soup
Serves 4 to 6
This light and refreshing soup is perfect for a hot summer day in the South. Watermelon and cantaloupe are staples at the grocery store during the summer months. Combine and chill ahead of time for a delicious starter or even a light dessert. This recipe is a great way to use up leftover fruit.
1-1/2 cups cantaloupe, cut in 1-inch pieces
5 cups seedless watermelon, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 to 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, optional
Puree the cantaloupe in a food processor or blender to make 1 cup of liquid. Repeat with the watermelon, making 3 cups of liquid. Taste and add the vinegar if desired. The purees can be poured separately and swirled together in the bowl for a pretty design, or they can be combined.
1. Add chopped mint, basil, or tarragon, as desired.
2. A creamy goat cheese or lemon Stilton would be perfect for a savory course, while goat or plain yogurt mixed with honey and fresh mint would make a satisfying, cool dessert course.
Melon is so accommodating it will welcome ripe peaches, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, etc., which may necessary when they need more flavor. If no white wine vinegar is available, use white wine, or even a liquor, such as Grand Marnier.
Depending on the lateness of the season and the ripeness of the fruit, the yield of liquid from the melons may differ. Usually a melon will puree to liquid roughly based on 3 parts melon yielding 2 parts liquid, so 1-1/2 cups melon usually yields about 1 cup liquid.