Cucumber Cool: Rediscover Chilled Soup This Shavuot


In America, Shavuot gatherings usually center around bagels and lox. But in the Old World, Shavuot called for a three-course meal, often starting with cold, creamy soups, a custom that has all but disappeared.

While refrigerated soup sounds like an oxymoron, in the days before air conditioning, Jews adored chilled soups, beginning at Shavuot and continuing throughout the summer.

Traditionally a dairy holiday, Shavuot falls seven weeks after Passover, on May 20 this year. Shavuot commemorates the children of Israel receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. According to scholars, when the ancient Israelites returned from this event, they were probably too exhausted to roast meat and ate dairy products instead. The purity of the Torah is often compared to milk’s whiteness.

Calling for sour cream or yogurt, cold soups abound in Jewish cuisine. Fruit soups, often sweetened with honey, originated with German Jews who made them while summering around the Baltic Sea. This practice spread to neighboring countries. Likewise, plum soup was wildly popular among Eastern European Jews.

Hungarian sour cherry soup causes Jews who remember it to swoon. During the summer, Hungarians serve most soups cold. On the savory side, green bean soup was a favorite among Jews. While it’s sometimes hard to find the slender, young beans that recipes require, I’ve substituted with haricots verts, thin French-style beans.

Jews of a certain age rave about schav, a cool tart soup made from sorrel, an herb that grew wild on hills throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

I have fond memories of my father pouring bottled borscht into a blender along with sour cream. As the ingredients twirled, I was thrilled by the gorgeous magenta color that emerged.

Originating in Persia, cucumber yogurt soup spread to many Sephardic countries. Around the Mediterranean, cold spinach soup is also a beloved Jewish appetizer. The seasoning of these two soups varies widely by region.  

It’s a pity that these recipes have been bypassed by smoothies and juice bar drinks. Part of our collective heritage, chilled soup is the perfect antidote to summer.

Cucumber Yogurt Soup | Dairy

Iced cucumber soup | Maren Wischnewski/Thinkstock

Serves eight

I published a variation of this refreshing soup in the Jewish Exponent in May 2013.

  • 1 English or “seedless” cucumber
  • 2 cups plain 2 percent reduced fat Greek yogurt
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 tablespoon red onion, chopped fine
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh basil, chopped fine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ teaspoons fresh dill, minced, plus 1½ teaspoons as a garnish

Slice the cucumber lengthwise. Leave the skin on, but remove and discard its fine seeds. Finely dice the cucumber. Reserve.

In a large non-metallic bowl, spoon in the yogurt. Add the water slowly and mix until a thick soup consistency is reached. Add more water if necessary. Whisk until well blended. Add the cucumber, red onion, garlic, vinegar, basil, salt and 1½ teaspoons of the dill. Gently mix together the ingredients.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Serve from a soup terrain or in individual bowls. Garnish with the remaining 1½ teaspoons of dill.

Summer Borscht | Dairy

Summer borscht | letterberry/Thinkstock

Serves eight

This super easy soup is a tangy, refreshing treat on hot days.

  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 bottles (33 ounces) borscht, refrigerated
  • 1½ cups reduced-fat sour cream
  • Dill fronds for garnish

In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar and bay leaf over a medium flame, stirring frequently until the sugar completely dissolves. Cool to room temperature. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Reserve.

Pour 1 bottle of borscht, ¾ cup sour cream and half of the vinegar mixture into a blender. Run the blender on high speed until the contents puree and turn a brilliant magenta. Empty the blender contents into a large glass bowl to show off the color. Repeat with the second bottle of borscht and remaining sour cream and vinegar mixture.

Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until ready to eat. Garnish with dill fronds.

Chilled Hungarian Green Bean Soup | Dairy

Serves eight

This soup tastes best when made the day before.

  • 1½ pounds haricots verts, French-style string beans
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch chunks
  • 3 teaspoons fresh dill, minced
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons dry white wine, such as a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc
  • ½ teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
  • 10 cups water
  • 2 (14.5 ounce) cans vegetable broth, on hand if needed
  • 1½ cups reduced fat sour cream
  • 3 teaspoons white vinegar, or more, if desired
  • Fresh chopped chives and paprika as garnish

Rinse the beans under cold water and dry them on paper towels. Trim off the ends and cut the beans horizontally into ¼-inch lengths.

Into a large pot, place the beans, onion, garlic, potato, dill, salt, wine, tarragon and water. Cover the pot and gently simmer on a medium flame, stirring occasionally so the potatoes don’t stick to the pot. You’ll need the broth in the pot, so don’t let it boil away. Add some of the canned vegetable broth, if necessary. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes soften when pierced with a sharp knife. Cool the bean mixture to warm.

With a slotted spoon, move the potato chunks to a plate and reserve. Place a colander over a large mixing bowl. Pour the contents of the pot through the colander and wait until the broth drains completely.

In three batches, place the potato, drained broth, sour cream and vinegar into a blender. Puree the ingredients. Pour the contents into a soup terrine or a large serving bowl. Stir in the bean mixture from the colander.

If the soup seems too thick, slowly drizzle in the vegetable broth a little at a time to thin it to the desired consistency. Taste and add more vinegar, a teaspoon at a time, if necessary. This soup is supposed to have a pleasantly sour tang.

Cover the terrine or bowl and refrigerate it overnight. If the ingredients separate, stir before serving. Serve in soup bowls garnished with chopped chives and a sprinkle of paprika.

Chilled Plum Soup | Dairy

Serves six

This sweet soup could be a dessert.

  • 16 ripe plums
  • 2 cups apple juice, or more, if needed
  • ½ teaspoon ground
  • cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 cups low-fat
  • sour cream
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest, or more if desired
  • 3 ice cubes
  • Sprigs of mint

Cut the plums into quarters. Remove and discard the skins and pits. In two batches, place all the ingredients — except the mint — in a blender and puree. Serve immediately in soup bowls. Garnish each bowl with sprigs of mint.


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