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Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: When it's almost too hot to eat, yogurt soup saves the day (and feeds the kids).
When dinnertime arrives at the end of a hot and bothered summer day, we have a cherished family tradition that we observe without fail: we start sniping at each other.
You do, too? Isn’t it a lovely ritual?
We’re too hot to cook. We’re too hot to even eat.
On days like these, after Isaiah reminds you that he isn’t too hot to eat, what we eat is yogurt soup.
Yogurt soup may save your marriage but it is not revolutionary: it is yogurt plus fruit or vegetable plus sharp rotating blades. But it is almost invariably tasty; it is approved of by all generations; and it is something you should know how to do without having to think about how to do it.
As a parent, I occasionally have surges of profound gratitude for certain foods. Bananas, I think, apropos of nothing. How would we make it without bananas? How do people raise children without bananas? This is how I feel about yogurt, too. We consume more yogurt than anything else in the house. It takes over. I used to want a beer fridge. Now I want a yogurt fridge.
Is that the sort of sentence that leads inexorably to a mid-life crisis? Give me a decade and I’ll let you know.
It takes some work to make yogurt into dinner, but the work is all mental: you have to give up your notions of a proper dinner. Yogurt soup and bread can be a complete meal. If you want to get fussy, make a salad. It’ll be cooler tomorrow. You can eat more then.
There is something of a yogurt soup belt, running across southern Europe and the Balkans, going overland across Turkey and Iran, before being buckled somewhere around the Subcontinent. It overlaps with the buttermilk belt and it expands to include some things that aren’t technically soup—raitas, curries, dips—but that’s immaterial. If you can eat it with a spoon, we will call it soup.
Yogurt soup is a conceit made for Mark Bittman—a set piece for him to riff on, like a drunk culinary savant at a party: OK, Bittman, yogurt soup, go—and his Vegetarian opus has predictably tasty suggestions: radish plus hazelnut; peas with rice wine vinegar; melon and chili and mint.
This is the sort of thing for which recipes are almost superfluous. The idea is the recipe: take equal parts yogurt and whatever you have. If you have beets, make beet soup; if you have mangoes, make mango; if you have avocado, make avocado. This avocado lassi, with less honey and more liquid, would do you well.
What do you need besides yogurt and the plant of your choice? Usually: some acid (lemon or lime juice, vinegar), some salt, some water or milk for thinning, some time (let it sit in the fridge for an hour, if you have it; if not, carry on). Sometimes: some herbs, some nuts. Follow your instincts here.
If your instincts aren’t feeling especially instinctive, consult the brilliant Flavor Bible, a complete compendium of what goes with what. It’s a matchmaker for the shy pantry. (For your beet soup: orange and tarragon. For the avocado: chives and smoked canned fish.)
As a case study, a trio of variations for the cucumber soup, the most obvious yogurt soup of all. But it only seems boring. In ascending order of time-suck, we have:
First, the every-step-is-optional version: puree equal amounts yogurt and cucumber. Add lemon juice and salt; thin as needed. Add chopped mint or dill. Sprinkle with paprika. All parts are movable; adjust as necessary; warranty will not be voided.
Third, the Balkan classic Tarator, here in Anne Mendelson’s translation from her great book Milk. Fair warning: there’s raw garlic here. There’s also grated cucumber, a handful of walnuts, some mashed bread. It’s an appetizer plate as meal.
Lightly adapted from Anne Mendelson's Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup walnuts
2 slices of country bread (soak briefly in water and then wring out the water)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups yogurt (whole)
4 small Persian cucumbers (or 1 English cucumber, peeled and seeded)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small bunch dill or mint
Photos by James Ransom