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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006 05:25 am

Cold comfort

How to make Mexican melon soup

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” says Bill Murray in the movie What About Bob?, explaining why he’s divorced, “those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves Neil Diamond.”

It’s a line that’s become part my family’s unique lexicon, an inside joke we repeat to each other with endless variations: There are two kinds of people in this world — those who like (blue eye shadow, Britney Spears, mullets, NASCAR . . . ) and those who don’t (ex-boy- or girlfriend, roommate, co-worker . . . ).

Cold soup is among those things that divide people into two camps. There are a surprising number who just don’t like it, no matter what kind — or at least they think they don’t. Many haven’t ever even tried it. It’s the idea of cold soup they don’t like.

I guess the reason is that soup has a strong, almost mystical association with comfort. The very word conjures up a picture of coming in from the frigid outdoors to a welcoming steaming bowl that warms you right down to your toes. And hot chicken soup — also known as Jewish penicillin — has long been a folk remedy for the common cold and a host of other ailments. Cold soups don’t fit the context.

Or do they? Maybe it just takes a paradigm shift. What qualifies as comfort food in the sweltering heat of a central-Illinois summer, hot soup that turns those beads of sweat on your forehead to rivulets streaming down your face — or a chilled concoction, perhaps with crisp, crunchy garnishes, that cools you like a fresh breeze? To me, cold soups are prime summertime comfort food, right up there with a cold piece of watermelon or an ice-cream cone.

There are two broad categories of cold soups: dessert soups, which are basically fruit purées; and savory cold soups which come in a wide variety of tastes and textures. Some are rich and creamy, others light and refreshing. Some are cooked, then chilled. Others require no cooking at all.

The most famous rich and creamy cold soup is vichyssoise, made with leeks and potatoes. Though it’s often thought of as French, it was actually invented in New York by Louis Diat, a Frenchman who was chef de cuisine at the New York Ritz-Carlton for 41 years. It’s still popular, both in its original form and with variations such as carrot. We even made a lobster vichyssoise in my early summer-cooking class.

Diat’s recipe includes heavy cream, chicken stock, and leeks, but a simple and delicious version is easily made with leftover mashed potatoes. Sauté grated onion in a little butter (about 2 tablespoons of onions in 1 teaspoon of butter for each cup of mashed potatoes). When the onions are translucent, mix them into the potatoes, thin the mixture with milk to the desired consistency, and chill it until you’re ready to serve it. Garnish the soup with chopped chives or thinly sliced scallions, if you like.

Best known in the light, refreshing, and uncooked category is the classic Spanish soup gazpacho. Although I’ve had versions in restaurants that are little more than souped-up (please forgive the pun) tomato juice, a genuine gazpacho made with tomatoes, cucumbers, and other ingredients at their seasonal peak is a true expression of summer.

Mexican melon soup (see recipe) is a favorite of mine that combines elements of all three kinds of cold soups. It contains fruit, in the form of cantaloupe; although the sweet fruitiness of the cantaloupe doesn’t dominate, rather it’s just one note in the harmonious whole. Yogurt adds richness while keeping the soup light and refreshing. Best of all, there’s no standing over a hot stove!

Even if you’ve always shuddered at the idea of cold soup, I challenge you to take the plunge. Try some on a sweltering, muggy day and discover just how comforting cold soup can be.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

Mexican Melon Soup

One ripe cantaloupe
1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste
1/4 cup minced mild onion
1/2 cup peeled, seeded, and diced cucumber
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, preferably white, or to taste
1 cup plain yogurt, preferably whole-milk
4 1/2 cups canned tomato juice (do not juice fresh tomatoes; they don’t give the proper thickness)

For garnishes: toasted pepita (pumpkin) seeds, chilli powder, crisply fried bacon bits, slivered fresh basil, chopped fresh cilantro, finely diced cantaloupe and cucumber, finely sliced chives or scallions, crabmeat, small cooked shrimp, or coarsely chopped cooked lobster.

Scoop out enough cantaloupe to measure 2 cups over a large bowl to catch the juice, pressing the flesh down in the measuring cup so that it is packed solidly. Put the cantaloupe and juice in the container of an electric blender. Add the lemon juice, onion, cucumber, pepper, and yogurt and purée everything until completely smooth. Pour the mixture into a 2-quart bowl or container and whisk in the tomato juice. Check the seasoning and add a little more lime juice, salt, or pepper if desired. Chill thoroughly. (If all ingredients are chilled ahead of time, you can serve the soup immediately.) Serve in chilled bowls or glasses. Sprinkle each serving with as many or as few of the garnishes as you choose, or present a selection of garnishes in small bowls and let each diner add garnishes to his or her taste. Makes about 8 cups.

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