I have always loved the idea of cold soups. Occasionally, I’ve even loved the soups themselves.
My grandmother made a beet borsht that I still think about all the time. She, and anyone brave enough to help her, would carry wide, shallow bowls from the kitchen, over several feet of pristine white carpeting, to the dining room table. (That we were seven grandchildren under the age of twelve around that table, and I don’t recall a single spill must mean that my memory is failing me.) We’d pass dishes of sour cream, chopped cucumber, and onions, and spoon what we wanted into our bowls. My grandfather would swirl in the cream and make his soup go pink. I liked to make a small island of sour cream in the center of my bowl, instead, and scrape away at it, spoonful by spoonful, so that the soup stayed deep purple, and the cream bright white.
Gazpacho and I have had some good times, too. When it’s not too thick, and the onions know their place, and the tomatoes are ripe, and the cucumbers sweet; with a heel of bread and a scrap of cheese, it’s my ideal summer lunch.
They tempt me, cold soups. They’re so good when they’re good. It’s too bad that, most often, they’re not: cold cucumber-yogurt soup, watery and weird, that makes you hunger for the very things you’re eating – cucumbers, yogurt – without satisfying that hunger at all; corn chowder and cream of green pea, their sweetness sucked away by the cold. And those awful fruit purees: a gritty slurry of strawberries and mint; a cantaloupe blended into a lumpy half-liquid and chilled not long enough. The likes of these have taught me to approach cold soups with caution, if at all.
This was my mindset when, while paging through Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, I came to a recipe called Grain, Herb, and Buttermilk Soup for Hot, Hot Days. Maybe it was the fact that I had all of the title ingredients on hand. Or that it happened to be a day that was indeed hot, hot. Or that all week I’d been pickling myself before bed in Deborah Madison’s warm and illuminating prose, and was thus inclined to follow her anywhere. Or that my friend, Sam, once mentioned that he drinks buttermilk by the glassful, which sounded strange at the time, but charming, and possibly fantastic. (And on second thought, not so strange. We eat another tart, cultured dairy product all the time. It’s called yogurt.) Whatever the reason, I didn’t blink. The next day this soup was lunch.
One of the things I like about this soup is that it’s “made-to-order,” as Madison puts it. You prepare a salad of grain, chopped herbs, lemon, and olive oil and stash it in the fridge. When hunger strikes, you scoop some of the dressed-up grains into a bowl and surround them with a moat of buttermilk. Then, you eat lunch. I know I’m not the only one who sweeps the kitchen for whatever looks good and needs eating – that last carrot, what’s left of the hummus, a slice of bread – throws it together on a plate, and calls it a meal. This soup is a premeditated version of exactly that.
It has so much going for it: chewy grains, creamy “broth,” herbs, citrus, fat. The oil beads up where it meets the buttermilk and gathers at the surface. It’s a beautiful soup, and a surprising one. That the grains and herbs remain separate from the liquid until the last moment keeps the flavors clean and bright. It is also a perfect picnic soup. You just pack the container of grains and a sealed quart of buttermilk – no worries about sloshes or spills – and assemble the soup on site.
A few words about buttermilk: I made this soup the first couple of times with my usual buttermilk by Organic Valley. It’s good, but like most supermarket brands, it isn’t truly buttermilk. It’s low-fat milk to which cultures have been added. Real buttermilk is the liquid that remains after cream has been churned into butter. Both versions are virtually fat-free (buttermilk is, by definition, the milk that’s left behind as the fat becomes butter) but the trace amounts of butter that remain in the churned stuff mean a richer flavor and creamier consistency. (Some buttermilks, I hear, actually contain tiny golden flecks of butter.) Earlier this week, I bought a bottle of Kate’s Real Buttermilk, and Eli set up a blind tasting for me in a couple of shot glasses. Friends, my mind was blown. Think of the difference between pancake syrup and real maple syrup. It’s like that. Needless to say, if you can get your hands on some churned buttermilk for this soup, do it.
p.s. While writing this post, I remembered a profile of Cruze Farm buttermilk and the “silver-tongued, buttermilk-drinking devil” Earl Cruze that ran back in 2009. (Cruze likens buttermilk to Viagra.) It’s a great read.
Farro, Herb, and Buttermilk Soup for Hot, Hot Days
Adapted from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison
Madison lists a number of possible grains for this soup: Kamut, spelt, farro, or einkorn. I make it with farro because it’s what I most often have around. As for the fresh herbs, I’ve been enjoying a mix of parsley, tarragon, and chives. Madison also suggests basil, parsley, lovage, salad burnet, and marjoram. Below are the total amounts you’ll need to serve 4-6 people. (Or one person, all week long.) My preferred measurements per individual serving are 1/3 cup farro salad to ½ cup buttermilk. Though I should say that I almost always go in for a second bowl.
1 quart buttermilk
1 cup farro
½ cup finely chopped mixed herbs
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons of olive oil or more, to taste
Salt and black pepper
More lemon juice and olive oil for finishing
Cook the farro according to your preferred method. (Here’s how I do it.) Drain any excess water from the grains, and while they’re still warm, toss with the herbs, lemon zest and juice, olive oil,, two big pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Stir, taste, and adjust seasoning, as necessary.
To serve, scoop 1/3 cup farro salad into each bowl and surround with ½ cup buttermilk. I like to finish each bowl with a light squeeze of lemon and a few additional drops of olive oil.