AN excellent well-chilled vichyssoise is a poem on the palette. A spicy gazpacho made with garden fresh tomatoes and home-grown herbs offers a multi-layered taste treat, refreshing and colorful on a hot summer day.
These are the cold soups most of us recognize. But how about a lovely, velvety smooth, cold carrot soup laced with fresh dill, or a tangy watermelon soup made with fresh summer fruit floating in riotous color? Or a pale gold cantaloupe soup - very mild, very subtle - to open or close a casual outdoor supper? Or for a light summer luncheon main course, a fine curried chicken soup?
So many of us tend to think of soup as a hearty, hot, one-dish meal made for cold-weather comfort. But a cold soup can be just as comforting and pleasing in hot weather.
Ruth Glick, co-author of "Skinny Soups" (Surrey Books, 1992), likes to surprise her guests with a delicious cup of cold soup on a muggy Maryland evening.
"People seldom think of soup for summer so they are unusual - an interesting, unusual touch for the first course or for dessert. I find cold soups very refreshing. I serve them in cups rather than in bowls, usually, and let people sip them. You don't really need a spoon for soups that are all one consistency."
Cold soups are the perfect meal for entertaining because you have to make them ahead - a day ahead is best. "Most of the soups do require a little bit of cooking," Glick says. "And it takes longer to chill them than you might think. So you have to start early and then refrigerate them for several hours or overnight."
Then, too, they travel well to picnics, Glick says. "I bring cold soup in a cooler and pour it into paper cups and hand it around - that works very well. I think people enjoy the unexpected, the little surprise. I know I do."
But cold soups can be main-dish meals, too. "It's the way I like to cook," she says, "put a lot of things in a pot. The curried soup is one I would serve as a meal."
Many hot soups adapt well to chilling, and Glick offers several recipes in her book that can be served either hot or cold. The curried soup is one she serves hot in winter and cold in summer.
One of her tips for a great pureed soup is using a blender rather than a food processor. Another idea for today's cook, Glick says, is to substitute milk for cream in the smooth soups.
Coralie Castle, who wrote another terrific soup cookbook, modestly titled "Soup" (101 Productions, 1993, $10.95) isn't as convinced that milk substitutes for cream. She acknowledges that many people don't like to use that much cream anymore, so she is experimenting with cottage cheese pureed in the blender. Yogurt substitutes well for sour cream, she says. But when she really wants that creamy flavor, she simply uses half the cream called for in the recipe.
For Ms. Castle, the secret of most soups, hot or cold, lies in the stock. She makes her own, keeping a variety of bones in the refrigerator until she has enough to make soup stock. She also recommends fortifying stock (your own or the canned variety) with powdered (not cubed) stock base.
"Always use fresh lemon or lime, never the bottled variety," she says. "And especially in cold soups, fresh herbs are preferred whenever possible. Garnishes are very important. You want nice eye-appeal. Edible flowers are perfect in the middle of a plain soup - try nasturtium or a basil leaf. Blossoms of pineapple sage are just delicious - as are the blossoms of scarlet runner beans." She won't use even farmers' market tomatoes in her famous gazpacho, preferring her own sun-ripened variety to any other. Gazpacho, the spicy Spanish concoction made of tomatoes and a variety of crispy veggies, is the perfect dish for home-grown tomatoes.
"Cold soup is delicately flavored," she says, explaining the importance of garden fresh ingredients, "much more delicate than a hot soup. Don't correct the seasoning until you have chilled it, because chilling will intensify seasoning."
In her superb cantaloupe soup, as in Glick's exquisite watermelon gazpacho, sugar is used like a spice. The sugar underscores the delicate tang of ginger and lemon in both recipes.
The cook may want to adjust that seasoning to taste, just as salt may be adjusted to taste in the sensational "Dilly Iced Carrot Soup" or Castle's luscious vichyssoise.
Another tip, Castle says, is that when a cold soup recipe calls for wine, a variety of fruit juices can be substituted. And a final recommendation from Castle: cold soup must be served very, very cold - thoroughly chilled and served in chilled bowls or cups.