Sipping cool while August roars

For us, August packs a double whammy: unbearable heat and the threat of hurricanes. I try to schedule vacations then, but it doesn’t always work out. This year, save for one week in Monroe (just as hot), I’ll be sweating it out with everyone else who decided to stay at home.

Air conditioning, cool pools and cold food save me from the worst of it. I cringe for roofers, construction workers and road repairmen. They must drink gallons of water on an average day, or maybe they live for that afternoon shower to wash them down. I would like to take popsicles or snowballs to them, but they look too busy for that. My favorite venture is a trip to the snowball stand. And for dinner, I like cold soups, salads and ice cream.

I also think about New Orleanians before the days of air conditioning. High ceilings and large windows helped. Residents changed out curtains and slipcovers to airy white cottons, storing the heavy velvet and embroidered drapes. Ice creams and sherbets from seasonal fruits were popular; then along came snowballs, which, I think, helped keep the population in place for the last century.

I always think of cucumbers when I want cool food. Maybe it’s because my mother always said my head was “cool as a cucumber” when she felt it to see if I had fever and didn’t. Add mint to cucumbers, swirl them into a liquid in a blender with some other cool stuff, and you’ve got a meal that feels like it takes the temperature down. My husband and I just had that for dinner with some sliced Creole tomatoes dressed with purple onion, olive oil and vinegar. With a few crackers, we were happy as with our meatless dinner, and no heat was needed to put it on the table.

The quintessential cold summer meal is gazpacho, and I’ve been reading all sorts of recipes to get ideas. Two thing are important: the quality of the tomatoes and the seasoning. These have to be right or you won’t have the full thrust of taste this dish should present. Hopefully in August, even if our Creoles are burnt out, we’ll still have good summer tomatoes from somewhere.

Gazpacho is a Spanish dish that originated in Andalusia. It can be found all over Spain, and it’s said that there are as many variations as there are families who make it. Basically it’s a cold vegetable soup with condiments. The Andalusian version usually adds bread to thicken the soup. Some versions use raw eggs. I prefer just the vegetables with chicken stock and tomato juice. I like to make up a large batch for dinner, and then keep it in the refrigerator for snacks or lunch.

To add protein to a soup meal, crumble some feta or goat cheese on top.

Next to snowballs, smoothies are the solution to the effects of summer. I am a purist when it comes to smoothies, and like one fruit at a time. Most people mix up several together. Either way, if you stock up on peaches, bananas, berries and mangos, a delicious fresh fruit drink can be yours in seconds.

Cucumber Mint Soup

1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup low-fat plain yogurt
1/3 cup mint leaves, packed,
      plus extra leaves for garnish
4 green onions, roughly chopped
3 medium cucumbers, peeled,
      seeded and roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and freshly grated pepper
      to taste

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill for about two hours. Serve cold in bowls and garnish with mint leaves. This can be made a day in advance.
Serves 4.

6 large or 8 medium red-ripe
      tomatoes, peeled, seeded
      and chopped
2 cucumbers, seeded and
2 red bell peppers, seeded
  and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground
      black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups tomato juice
1 14-ounce can chicken stock
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Prepare vegetables and garlic and set aside.
Place vinegar and seasonings in a blender. Blend and slowly add olive oil. Add onion and garlic and blend for a few seconds. Add 1/2-cup of the tomato juice and 1/2-cup of chicken stock. Add about 1/3 of the vegetables and pulse several times until the vegetables are finely chopped but not pureed. Pour into a large bowl. Continue adding liquids and vegetables in batches, process until finely chopped and add to bowl. Add dill and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and chill until ready to serve. This is best chilled at least 3 hours or overnight. Serve in bowls and garnish with dill.

Serves 8.

Note: An easy way to peel tomatoes is to drop them into boiling water for several seconds and place in a brown paper bag closed at the top for a few minutes to steam. Core out the stem and the skin should slide off. To seed tomatoes, run a knife into the seed pockets and scrape out exposed seeds – don’t worry about getting them all. To seed cucumbers run a grapefruit spoon down the center to get most of the seeds. It is not necessary to get all of the seeds.

Options: If you like gazpacho with a Mexican flair, substitute cilantro for the dill and add a variety of hot peppers to replace one of the red bell peppers.

Peach Smoothie
2 very ripe large peaches,
     peeled and seeded
1 cup milk (skim, 2 percent
      or whole)
1 cup ice cubes
1 tablespoon sugar or
  2 Splendas (optional)

Place all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth.

Serves 2.

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