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Wine & Dine

A peachy affair

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Summer in Europe is all about celebrating the precious few weeks of sunshine and warmth before the onset of autumn and dark winters. This is also the season for fruit such as cherries, peaches, apples and berries. Fruit is used creatively across the continent from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe in both sweet and savoury dishes. These include divine fruit-based soups that capture the spirit and flavour of summer in their cold, colourful depths.

While the concept of using fruit for soup is starting to catch on in India, the trend remains largely confined to fine-dining restaurants in metros. Moreover, while the chef may put his or her own signature on the creations, the soups tend to be restricted to conventional 'soup fruit' such as cherries, avocados and melon. Experimenting with very local - and more importantly, seasonal - fruit is rare.

This is a pity. Because, if like me, you believe firmly that one of the things that makes the long summer months bearable is looking forward to a bowl of chilled soup either at lunch or dinner (and sometimes both), then fruit grown locally and abundantly available in the hot months - watermelon, mangoes, wood apple (bel), pomegranate - can add to your cold soup repertoire.

When I first began experimenting with local fruit, I drew my lessons from the European fruit soups I had enjoyed: scarlet bowls cherry soup from Eastern Europe, the clove-redolent apple soup from Denmark, the fruit soup one finds in all the Scandinavian countries that has dried fruit like apricot and prunes, slow-stewed in red wine, mellowed with the richness of sour cream and fragrant with cinnamon and the subtle cantaloupe soup with a barely discernible hint of mint.

Unlike vegetable soups, the fundamental taste sensation that you work with when making a fruit soup is sweet. This gives these soups their uniqueness but also provides cooks the challenge of moderating the sweetness without banishing it all together. You need to get a cold soup with sweet accents, not a smoothie masquerading as chilled soup.

Lime, yoghurt and sour cream are stalwarts when you're turning fruit into soup. A herb like mint that readily straddles the sweet and savoury worlds - think of mintice cream but also raita - is almost indispensable. To a lesser extent, and certainly with much greater caution, basil comes in handy - especially sweet basil.

This summer I launched into fruit soups inspired by a wonderful watermelon gazpacho recipe provided by New York Times food columnist, Mark Bittman. Watermelon, tomatoes, and cucumber are roughly chopped and put into the processor along with a generous dash of olive oil and a handful of mint, and then whizzed to create a chunky mêlange. This beautiful collage of reds, pinks, and greens is served with some shredded mint and a sprinkling of feta.

As is typical of his cooking, Bittman's recipe is all about using the best of the season. This meant, however, that the recipe used a fairly high ratio of raw tomatoes to the watermelon, since in the US this is the time for sweet, juicy tomatoes. Given the miserable quality of our tomatoes in this hot weather, I reduced their quantity and upped the amount of watermelon. I also decided that this gazpacho was resilient enough for a dash of Tabasco and not having feta at hand, I crumbled some un-smoked Bandel cheese over the surface before serving. The result was an incredible explosion of sensations on the palate with the first ice-cold spoonful: sweet water-melon moderated by the heat of Tabasco, the crunch of the fruit, cucumber and tomatoes, the fragrance of mint and all of this mellowed by the extra-virgin olive oil and the subtle pungency of the Bandel cheese.

Soup, I discovered, is a great way of using up slightly over-ripe mangoes. Blend them with some yogurt to get a consistency that is thin enough to easily pour out. Adjust the taste so that the sweetness of the mango is tempered by the acid creaminess of the yogurt and pour into soup plates. Finely dice a mix of red and green peppers and cucumber and shred a bunch of coriander. Swirl in a couple of tablespoons of this mix into each soup serving, fleck with red chilli flakes and serve chilled.

Even subtly flavoured fruit make flavourful soup. For instance wood apple grows in abundance in our Santiniketan home in the hottest months of the year and its flowery flavour is enjoyed in a cooling sharbat made with milk. For the soup, I pulped the fruit with some milk. I added single cream to the thick puree and blended it in the food processor till it acquired a soupy consistency and the sweet had been sufficiently tamped down.

A spritz of lime provided satisfying tartness. But the soup was still missing something. Deciding that it craved some heat, but nothing as dramatic as chillis, I opted for some freshly powdered nutmeg. A garnish of mint leaves was all that was left to finish a refreshing, cold summer soup, prettily pale peach in colour and redolent of wood apple and nutmeg.

COLD POMEGRANATE SOUP


(Serves 4)

Ingredients


Seeds from 2 ripe pomegranates 1 cup pomegranate juice 3 cups beaten yogurt 1 cucumber 1 tablespoon tahini Mint

Method


Beat tahini into yogurt, then add the pomegranate juice and blend to get a mix that can be poured easily. Adjust sweetness to your taste by adding honey to increase sweetness and yogurt to reduce. Divide this pale pink liquid into four soup bowls and distribute the pomegranate seeds and the cucumber into each bowl, giving it a good stir each time. Garnish with a generous scatter of chopped mint. Serve chilled.

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