Exeter, N.H. — Joan Harlow is a talented cook who owns a restaurant called the Loaf and Ladle in Exeter, N.H. She keeps a very open mind on soup, with one hand checking the ingredients of a classic recipe and the other checking the best produce in the local market.
One day a particularly good bowlful was filled with chunky pieces of eggplant and Italian sausage slices, a tour de force of flavor, texture . . . and, as it turns out, ingenuity.
''I had a lot of leftover ratatouille (a Nicoise ragout of eggplant and sweet peppers), so I sauteed some Italian sausage, tossed in the ratatouille, and added some water.''
It was a great invention we could all take to heart these summer days when a surfeit of ratatouille shows up in our refrigerators.
The day of our visit was a sweltering July afternoon, but Joan had anticipated the heat and prepared a cold cucumber and a cold strawberry soup, both tangy and refreshing.
Each day there are five kinds of soup to choose from, and an equal number of homemade breads, which included anadama, Cheddar, and sourdough rye this particular day.
Sandwiches, salads, and enticing desserts are also offered - there is no menu except the colorful signs above the open kitchen, where you place your order.
The restaurant is rustic, with prints for sale on the walls, wooden tables and chairs, hanging plants, and a small porch in the back overlooking a river.
Joan was a professional singer in New York before opening the soup and salad restaurant 10 years ago, when it was one of the first of its kind.
The appeal of a light, wholesome soup, bread, and salad lunch or supper has endured in this picturesque New England town, and a line forms inside even on the hottest summer day. The Loaf and Ladle is closed in August, when Joan escapes to Maine, but it reopens after Labor Day, and stays open all winter.
Soup in summer is best made from scratch, and since most of us have a tendency to overbuy at vegetable stands, our refrigerators are brimming with the freshest ingredients. Why not find a brace or two of vegetable soups that are tailored to summer's special offerings? Mexican Corn and Tomato Soup 4 corn tortillas, commercial or homemade 1/4 cup vegetable oil 2 tablespoons butter 1 large green pepper, seeded and chopped fine 1 medium onion, chopped fine 2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped 1 tablespoon chopped pickled jalapeno pepper 4 cups fresh corn kernels (4 large ears)
4 cups chicken stock 1 cup sour cream 1/2 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
Stack tortillas and cut like a pie into 8 pieces. In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil and saute tortillas briefly just until they are crisp and turning a pale beige. Remove to paper towels to drain.
In a saucepan, heat butter and gently saute green pepper and onion, about 5 minutes. Add tomato and jalapeno pepper and continue to saute until soft, about 3 more minutes.
Combine 2 cups of corn kernels with 1 cup of chicken stock and blend to a coarse puree. Add to saucepan and repeat with remaining corn and 1 cup of chicken stock.
Add remaining 2 cups of chicken stock to the saucepan, bring to a boil, and cook gently for 20 minutes, stirring often.
Remove pan from heat and whisk in sour cream.
Serve to 6 in soup bowls, sprinkling each serving with some tortilla chips and shredded cheese. Curried Eggplant Bisque 4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick) 1 medium onion, minced 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger 4 teaspoons curry powder 1/8 teaspoon cayenne (optional) 2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped 1 small eggplant, about 1 pound, peeled 2 cups chicken stock 2 cups rich milk or light cream 1 teaspoon salt, if necessary 1/4 cup finely chopped mango chutney 1/4 cup finely chopped scallion leaves or chives
Heat butter in a saucepan and saute onion until soft, but not brown, 5 minutes. Add ginger and stir for 1 minute. Add curry powder and cayenne, and stir until the mixture is aromatic, 1 minute. Add tomatoes and continue to cook until soft, about 3 minutes.
Slice eggplant lengthwise in 1/2-inch slices and then in 1/2-inch cubes. Add to saucepan with chicken stock, partly cover, and simmer gently for 15 minutes or until eggplant is soft.
Cool slightly, and puree in blender. You may have to do this in two batches. Return to saucepan with milk or cream and bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly.
Taste and add salt if necessary. Divide chutney among 6 soup bowls, add soup, and sprinkle with chopped scallion or chives. This bisque is also delicious served cold. Chilled Cucumber Soup With Yogurt 3 cucumbers 2 cloves garlic 1 quart yogurt 5 to 6 ice cubes Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste Salt and pepper Fresh mint for garnish
Peel cucumbers and puree with garlic. Stir in yogurt, ice, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Refrigerate until chilled and ice has melted.
Stir soup and add more salt and pepper to taste. Serve in chilled bowls with a slice of cucumber and fresh mint leaves as a garnish.