I have a confession to make. You know this heat wave everyone's been fussing about? I've actually been enjoying it. Don't get me wrong: the past week has been blistering hot even in Maine, and yes, I'd dial it back a bit in the evenings if I could. But overall, I've liked it. For one thing, the ocean swimming has been sublime—the only reason we're getting out of the water after 30 or 40 minutes is because we have other stuff to do, not because we're cold. When you live in Maine, you don't get to say that very often.
It's also been fun to pull out all the stops on hot-weather foods. I'm talking dishes like gazpacho, tabouli, vichyssoise, coleslaw, potato salad, and lobster salad—dishes that are not only fresh and seasonal but are served chilled. We've been doing our cooking early, right after breakfast, then forgetting about the stove for the rest of the day. It's been a nice rhythm.
One of my favorites in our heat-wave repertoire is a chilled beet-and-cucumber soup that I adapted from a recipe in The Victory Garden Cookbook. I don't make it nearly as often as I should—the thought of peeling beets sometimes slows me down—but every time I do, I'm reminded how good it is. And the color! Isn't it exquisite? We ate this a few nights ago with a big green salad and zucchini-cornmeal muffins, sitting in the Adirondack chairs on the patio as the day grew quiet and ever so slightly cooler. We served the soup in my mother's favorite Spode teacups, ate it with my grandmother's silver teaspoons, and declared it a fine, fine way to beat the heat.
CHILLED BEET & CUCUMBER SOUP
This recipe makes about 6 cups and will keep in the fridge for at least a week. Be sure to simmer, not boil, your beets. A hard boil will dull the lovely color of the beets.
5 cups peeled and diced raw beets*
1 cup diced onion
4 cups beef stock (chicken would probably work fine too)
2 cups peeled and diced cucumber
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
fresh chives or dill (optional)
sour cream (optional)
Put the beets and onions in a soup pot with the beef stock. Bring just to a boil and immediately turn down to a simmer. Simmer until the beets are nicely soft; this may take 30 minutes or longer. Cool and put in a blender. Add the cucumber, vinegar, and salt and pepper and blend until smooth. Taste and add more vinegar (and salt and pepper) if needed. Chill thoroughly. If you want to get fancy, serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh chives or dill.
*The last time I made this soup, I was well on my way when I discovered I was 1 1/2 cups short on beets. Argh! I quickly grabbed the beet stems I'd just thrown in the compost bucket, washed them and cut them into 1-inch pieces, and voila—the substitution worked just fine.