Recipe: Chilled Peach Soup with Basil and Peperoncino Pesto
Once, when I was in high school, a friend’s mother invited a bunch of kids over for her son’s birthday, and instead of the usual summer barbecue/food fight/pothead afternoon, it turned out to be a formal sit-down luncheon. We were very uncomfortable. She was Austrian, and she seemed so out of place in Glen Head, Long Island, dressed in a long, gray-blue skirt that just may have been fashioned from burlap, and long, flat, brown stylishly orthopedic looking shoes . We all nervously took our seats around the table, and she brought out a first course. A first course. God, now we were really nervous. It was a cold blueberry soup, with sour cream or something white and sour on top (crème fraîche?). I had never heard of such a thing, soup made from fruit, and it wasn’t even dessert. It made a big impression on me. It was sour, dark purple, and startlingly delicious. It was glamorous. I can’t remember much else about the meal, except that it went on for hours without much let up in tension, but I do recall my friend’s father, sitting off in the corner through the entire ordeal, playing Carl Orff records on a decrepit child’s turntable, and every once in a while yelling something in his German accent, such as “Here, you see, here is where it says anus.” Carl Orff, I believe, is known for his modern though medieval-inspired sexual Nazi sound. This really seemed to appeal to my friend’s father, a former Jew turned Episcopalian turned Unitarian. At the end of the afternoon I wanted to run out of there so fast, back to the ring-a-ding Dean Martin comfort of my own home. But that soup made a lasting impression.
Since then I’ve been served and I’ve prepared myself fruit soups, and they’ve always had a fancy-dining feeling about them. They’re a wonderful thing to serve guests, because their colors can be brilliant (cobalt blue, day-glo pink, flaming orange, crimson), and their flavors—half sweet, half savory—are unexpected. For obvious reasons I always think about fruit soups in the summer, so when I recently picked up a little box of fragrant yellow peaches at the Union Square market, I knew they needed to become soup, but soup with Italian flair, more savory than sweet, and with no cream to muddy it up.
Peaches with basil has for a long time been a familiar flavor combination for me. In warm weather, my father would throw together big bowls of sliced peaches in red or white wine, and he’d often add a few basil or mint leaves from his garden. This too was glamorous. So, with these flavor memories as my guide, I went ahead chopping up my peaches, adding shallot sautéed in olive oil, and white wine. I topped this acid-sweet purée with basil pesto, replacing the cheese, which I thought would make the peach taste a little pukey, with fresh chili. The mix of fruit, herbs, and a touch of spice emerged as something really appealing. I served my peach soup and then a dish of pork chops braised with gently vinegared bell peppers (I have a recipe here), another good late summer dish, since peppers are at their best right now. If you follow up with a simple green salad, you’ve got it made, and the meal might not even scare teenagers. As long as you forgo the Carl Orff accompaniment.
Chilled Peach Soup with Basil and Peperoncino Pesto
(Serves 4 as a first course)
6 large, very ripe yellow summer peaches
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup dry white wine
A pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 garlic clove
1 fresh green peperoncino chili (or use 1/2 a serrano or jalapeno), roughly chopped
¼ cup pine nuts, plus a handful of toasted pine nuts for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil
Blanch the peaches in boiling water for about 4 minutes. Lift them from the water with a slotted spoon, and slip off the skins. Cut the peaches in half, and remove the pits. Crush them with your fingers over a shallow bowl, catching all the juice.
In a medium soup pot, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the shallot, and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the peaches and the sugar, and cook for about a minute. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for another minute. Pour in 1½ cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, and some black pepper. Bring to a boil, and then turn off the heat and cover the pot, letting it sit for about 5 minutes so the peaches can gently soften. Purée the peach mixture in a food processor until very smooth, adding more hot water if needed to get a thick but pourable consistency (about like heavy cream). Add a squeeze of lemon juice to bring up the flavors, and chill for several hours or overnight.
To make the pesto: Bring a small pot of water to a boil, and add the basil leaves, blanching them for about 30 seconds. Drain the basil, and run it under cold water to set its color. Drain well. Place the garlic, peperoncino, and pine nuts in a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough chop. Add the blanched basil, ¼ cup of olive oil, and a little salt. Pulse until you have a fairly smooth paste. Transfer the pesto to a little bowl.
To serve: Ladle the soup into shallow bowls. Spoon a dollop of the pesto onto the middle of each, and garnish with the toasted pine nuts.