If you are not blessed with a suitable outdoor space, hosting a dinner party at the height of summer can be a sticky proposition. I do not mean to suggest you are a messy cook; rather, it is the heat and humidity shellacking one’s skin with sweat that concern me. Given that in certain climes this unpleasantness can form within seconds after you’ve left the immediate vicinity of the air conditioner, the thought of firing up a few burners—God forbid the oven—inside the house can be enough to induce the social equivalent of aestivation.
But what a shame that would be! I am here to tell you that it is possible to offer your friends an indoor summer dinner party without it turning into a sweat lodge. The trick is to avoid heat-based cooking as much as possible, and instead opt for recipes that serve the season’s bounty with as little processing as possible—creative capreses and citrusy ceviches come to mind, as do salty cold meats and bright grain salads. Most of these require no flame, and others—like, say, a spice-crusted pork loin roast—can be cooked the day before (in the dead of night, if you like), allowing plenty of time for the heat to dissipate. For my money, though, the only way to start a summer meal on the right, comfortingly cool foot is with a cold soup.
Vichyssoise is, of course, the star of the chilled liquid genre, but I favor a lighter spoonful that places the season’s flavors front-and-center, avoiding cream and other rich accoutrements that only muddy the waters. A delicate pea soup is my go-to right now because of the vibrancy of both its color and its taste. And if the delight my guests have expressed at the herbaceous refreshment of this simple yet carefully calibrated soup is any indication, it is a place I will continue to go in the future.
If you want to come with me, here are a few basic tips. Use fresh peas if you can find them, but frozen will do fine. When sautéing, strive to avoid browning the leeks or other ingredients; we are after the cleanest flavor profile possible here. Speaking of which, resist the temptation to use a stock of any sort. In this instance, the complexity that a good chicken stock would provide in other soups is unwelcome—good tasting (perhaps filtered) water really is all you want. Beyond that, be sure to give your soup enough time to chill completely (overnight is best), and do not be afraid if it seems to have separated in the intervening hours. Simply stir it up and serve in bowls that you have taken care to chill in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes prior to showtime. Your diners, still recovering from the blistering heat of the outdoors, will appreciate the effort.
Cold Pea Soup
Yield: 4 to 6 servings (about 5 cups)
Time: About 4½ hours, almost entirely unattended
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, chopped
1 small garlic clove, sliced
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
½ cup loosely packed mint leaves, plus more for optional garnish
¼ cup loosely packed basil leaves
Salt and black pepper
Lemon infused olive oil, for garnish (optional)
1. Put the butter in a large pot over medium heat. When it melts, add the leek, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more.
2. Add the peas and 6 cups water. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peas are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the mint and basil and cook until herbs are wilted, about 3 more minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, and purée the soup with an immersion blender.
3. Once the soup has cooled somewhat, pour it through a fine metal strainer placed over a large bowl, and press with a spatula to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids.
4. Refrigerate the soup for at least 4 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, season carefully with salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Serve in chilled bowls and garnish with a small mint leaf and drizzle of lemon olive oil, if desired. (Store leftover soup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)