When hunger strikes

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.


Adrienne said...

I am with you on the cold soup idea. I almost never really like eating it-a notable exception being the amazing ajo blanco at Contigo in SF-but it just seems so darn easy that I want it to be a reasonable summertime lunch solution.

Man, I really need to get a copy of this book. (I keep picking it up and looking at it at Porter Square Books and then putting it back. Silly me.) Also, I feel like this might be a really good place to use Cuppow's new BNTO jar thingy, which must mean that their marketing has worked on me! Also this is the second intriguing recipe involving buttermilk I've read today so I think I'll be stopping at the store on the way home. Thanks, Jess!

darbyoshea said...

You're on a roll lately, friend! P.S. Greetings from the far West!

Jess said...

Adrienne - It's a gorgeous book, and I'm learning so much from it. My copy was a birthday gift from a friend. I had to look up the Cuppow thing you referred to, but yes, it looks like it was made for this soup! (By the way, you can find Kate's Real Buttermilk at the Porter Square Shaw's.)

darbyoshea - Thanks, and welcome home, Em! Sending hugs across the continent to you. xx.

John S said...

I STILL make my grandmother's borscht every summer, having insisted to watch her cook it a few times to make sure she didn't sneak in some ingredient when I wasn't looking(as your great-great-grandmother did often).

Otherwise, I'm generally with you on most cold soups, especially Shav, which always seemed like milky dishwater with tasteless spinach and hard boiled eggs.

The farro/buttermilk recipe sounds great!

Jess said...

John, hi! And wait, is your grandmother's borscht the same as my grandmother's borscht? And do you have the recipe?? I would love to have it.

pas said...

I'm with you on *most* cold soups. But I do really love Bulgarian Tarator and I make it a lot in the summer, particularly when it's really, really hot. I discovered it when we were travelling around Bulgaria a couple of years back.

I throw a couple of peeled and roughly chopped Lebanese cucumbers with a cup and half (or so) whole milk yoghurt (I really like Brown Cow), a garlic clove, some salt, and a handful of dill or mint (or both!) into the blender. (If I use a regular cucumber, I scoop out the seeds first, so as to not make things to watery.) Then I pour it into two bowls, add a couple of ice cubes, top it with some more chopped dill, some diced cucumber, and some toasted walnuts. Lunch!

A plum by any other name said...

I made this on Friday and it was shockingly good. I say shocking because, well, one doesn't expect dairy and whole grains to wow. But it did. And that was even after I subbed in wheatberries and whole milk (because when I make butter the buttermilk always tastes like whole milk to me). Jess, it's a keeper.

molly said...

oh, yes, please. i have come to adore, ADORE, this way with soups, the last-minute assembly line of bits and bobs. i think of it as the heidi swanson way, but you're right, madison's been trumpeting this angle for ages.

i can totally see a smattering of chopped cucumber here. added at the end, so as not to forestall watery and weird.

Molly said...

I thought I recognized this soup tune. Ottolenghi sings a similar song in JERUSALEM, but with hot yogurt and barley. Perhaps to revisit in the winter months? And white carpets and borscht? I can't even imagine.

Jess said...

pas - Thanks so much for sharing your recipe! I really like the idea of toasted walnuts on a cold, creamy soup.

A plum by any other name - I'm so glad you liked it, Emily. I agree that the way the whole dish comes together is a total surprise!

molly - Ah, great minds! I've also been thinking about adding cucumber to my next go 'round. I think it would be great.

Molly - Thanks for flagging that Jerusalem recipe. I've been back and forth through my copy many times, but somehow I missed it! A hot yogurt soup... I'm intrigued.

chris patry said...

Its good to be the only dairy selling real buttermilk in our country...... :)

tencansbeans said...

Oh! I have never, ever, considered buttermilk soup. Where did you find Kate's? I'm in New England, and starting in September will be coming to Cambridge with some regularity, and I'd love to try some.

On a mildly related note, if you're ever in the mood to give cucumber soup another shot, I just wrote about one here. [Hi, by the way - I'm one of those ninja readers who never posts. I'm Becca. Nice to meet you!]

Jess said...

tencansbeans - Forgive me for the delay in responding. Blogger had marked your comment as spam, for some reason, and had hidden it from me! I found Kate's Buttermilk at Shaw's in Porter Square here in Cambridge. I've heard that the Market Basket chain also carries it. Thank you for the link to your soup, which looks promising! I'm interested in the addition of vinegar... And hi, by the way, to you, too! Thanks for speaking up, Becca.

Katherine @ Londonnotebook said...

It's so funny! I'd never heard of Farro and then about three different American blogs that I read mentioned it in about a 6 week period. It's very hard to track down in the UK - no healthfood store sells it and only one supermarket. But I cooked it for the first time last night and it's delicious! I'm going to become the English Farro Ambassador.


ps. I've never had Borscht either.

sara forte said...

I adore that book. Just gifted it to a friend because I think it is so special. I am waiting for a bit bout of free time where I can really read the text.
My grandma drinks glassfuls of buttermilk - doesn't sound attractive to me either but also not terrible. You make it look so lovely and simple and the perfect quick lunch. xo

Holly said...

Miss your postings, Jess - your blog is so well-written and interesting...when will you post again? :

And strong-arm Molly into posting again, too. Both of you are so thoughtful - a welcome diversion from the mindless chatter out there. We're coming into a rich culinary season, too - so both of you: Do your magic! :)

El said...

It's cold now but the soup looks great any time of year.

Alanna said...

I'm so glad to have found your blog (through the About Food Lecture)! I'm loving your writing, photographs, and sense of humor. I'm a diehard Deborah Madison fan, too. She particularly has a way with soups, and this one sounds spectacular. Can't wait to try it when the weather warms up again. Mazel tov on your book and new addition to the family!