Liquid Summer: Sweet or savory, fresh fruit soups are ripe with flavor

When you dine out this time of year, you’re bound to find a cold soup on the menu, and we’ll wager a buck or two that it’ll be a Spanish-inspired gazpacho. But while that summertime classic is delicious, the realm of chilled soups isn’t limited to just the pick of summer vegetables. With the spring crop of berries soon giving way to a harvest of summer orbs – melons, apricots, peaches, sweet and sour cherries, and other hot-season fruits – local chefs are setting their creative sights on turning fresh summer fruit into cool soups that can be the perfect start or finish to a distinct dining experience.

“There are hundreds of great cold soups that people haven’t experienced,” commented sous chef Benjamin Love, whose cold blueberry soup is on the menu this month at Cielo in the Four Seasons Hotel. “I have fond memories of picking blueberries as a child. I can still picture myself standing in the middle of a blueberry field. My face and hands were all stained purple. This fruit is near and dear to my heart – and it has an amazing flavor.”

Although Love noted that the small purple berries could be simply puréed in a blender and then passed through a chinois, he prefers to cook them prior to puréeing so that they release all of their juices. “They get a dark, rich color,” he explained.

Wines make a wonderful addition to cold fruit soups, and Love stayed true to Cielo’s focus on Italian cuisine by spiking his with Moscato d’Asti, a sparkling wine from northern Italy. “It’s a very floral, sweet, refreshing white wine.” The wine serves to both thin the soup and lend effervescence. Love pours equal parts soup and bubbly into the bowl, creating a fun and fizzy top purple layer. (For a guest-impressing maneuver, he’ll pop open the bottle at the table and assemble the soup on the spot.) The soup is then crowned with a quenelle of creamy white buttermilk sorbet sprinkled with dried lime zest. For a garnish to this playful white-on-purple creation, Love suggested toasted almonds or an amaretto cookie.

Next door, at Sleek Steakhouse in Lumière Place, chef de cuisine Steven Caravelli also plates an impressive fruit soup, dubbed fresh fruit minestrone. Caravelli starts by making a brunoise of fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and pineapple. He uses a small ring mold to center the tiny dice of mixed fruit in the middle of a soup bowl, then adds a scoop of green-tinted basil sorbet on top and a crispy fried basil leaf as garnish. The dish comes together tableside, when a citrusy “broth” made of vanilla-scented orange juice, sugar, water and vanilla bean is pooled around the outside of the berry bundle. The mock minestrone concept can incorporate a variety of seasonal fruit, noted Caravelli, but “spring berries or summer melons are key” for this dish, which can periodically be found as a dessert on the tasting menu at Sleek.

At Winslow’s Home in University City, chef Cary McDowell plans to make soup from the brilliant red jewels currently covering the strawberry patches on owner Ann Lipton’s Augusta farm. McDowell’s recipe uses just four ingredients: strawberries, sugar, orange juice and fresh mint – it doesn’t take much to make a prized crop of strawberries shine brightly. Tossing sliced berries in sugar and letting the sugars set overnight “makes a thick, syrupy mixture,” explained McDowell. Once the berries are macerated, he blends them with a few fresh mint leaves and orange juice, which accentuates the berry flavor and lends some volume and body to the soup, although this one will be on the watery side. “To me, it looks like a pink consommé,” he said.

Fresh herbs can be a flavorful addition to a fruit soup. Although McDowell normally shies away from using mint, this is one time when he considers it apropos. When asked about other herbal harmonies for strawberries, McDowell suggested a subtle accentuation with lemon verbena or tarragon, and mentioned thyme and black pepper as a lip-smacking combo for strawberries that is a common coupling in French cuisine.

Like Caravelli, both McDowell and Love commented that their soups would probably fall in the category of finisher rather than starter. Does that mean that a fruit soup can’t make the perfect beginning to a meal?

No, but some tweaks would be in order. “I would typically go away from a sweet for a starter. It’s more difficult to do pure fruit soups and go with a savory,” explained Love, who considers his blueberry soup more along the lines of a pastry item. To make it appropriate as a first course, he suggested the addition of an acid such as a balsamic vinegar reduction. McDowell’s thoughts for rotating his strawberry soup to the opening of a meal would be to pair it with something savory such as a goat cheese mousse or shrimp with chile powder.

Farmhaus chef and owner Kevin Willmann noted that the fruit soups he has made generally “play on the borderline” between sweet and savory. For instance, when he worked at Mosaic earlier in his career, Willmann prepared a blueberry and grape gazpacho using Concord grapes, plump blueberries, shallots, cilantro, sea salt and a touch of rice wine vinegar. Another time, Willmann mashed watermelon in a colander, then kicked it up with jalapeños. For a cooling effect, he served the watermelon soup with a crème fraîche sorbet. “It was for an off-the-cuff tasting menu,” said Willmann, who’s considering offering a spin on strawberry soup this summer. “I might do a semifreddo. [a semi-frozen dessert] floating in strawberry stuff. If you can get the broth light and clean and flavorful enough, you can even play with pepper, maybe pink peppercorns,” he mused.

Fruit soups are one cooking category where you can expect to play a bit. Depending on the ripeness of the fruit, you might have to work harder to extract or enhance those sugary juices or else work in some acidity if you want to serve soup as a first course instead of a fifth. Regardless of when you serve such fare, the time is ripe for some soupy fruit, and we give you carte blanche to invent your own fruit-centric specialty.