“I smell salt.” Michael stopped and looked around. We had been taking an evening stroll in our neighborhood, and at the moment we were standing in the fading light next to a house with a lush garden. I looked around, too. “I don’t think salt has a scent,” I said. Or does it? “Are you smelling the ocean? Maybe the wind’s blowing over from Puget Sound.”
“No…” he replied, turning his head to try to locate the source of the smell. “This is just salt.”
I sniffed. “All I can smell is this rosemary bush—Wait! You’re smelling rosemary!” Mike’s favorite bread from Essential Baking Company is Rosemary Diamante, a loaf made with fresh rosemary and topped with a chunky, sparkling crust of…you know what I’m gonna say. So Mike smells rosemary and thinks, “Salt!”
Now I smell rosemary and think, “Mike is adorable!”
Anyway, my adorable husband and I went out to eat last weekend at How to Cook a Wolf, and found ourselves facing another sensory mystery. It was a warm night, the windows were open, and the sun still slanted on our shoulders, so I was looking for something refreshing to eat. The chilled cucumber soup sounded dreamy to me, but this restaurant serves “plates” intended for sharing. And Mike, he’s not a cucumbersman. However, he was game to try it.
The pretty soup came as our first course, dolloped with yogurt and drizzled with bright oil made greener with tarragon. Mike took the first taste. His face instantly turned into a grimace—but it was a grimace of too much pleasure, one usually reserved for chocolate and cheese. The pleasure-grimace over cucumber soup? What universe had I been zapped into?
“Wow,” he said, reverently. “This is rich!” I heard his words but could not understand how he could be saying them. But then I tasted this soup. Creamy smoothness and sweet cool hit my mouth like a swimming pool splash on a hot afternoon. The cucumbers and rich yogurt were subtly offset by tarragon, tasting of freshly built summer treehouses. But there was something else…what was it?
“Garlic,” Michael asserted. This is not what I was tasting at all.
“Is this like your ‘salt’?” I teased him. What else could this mystery ingredient be?
He insisted that since it had a round, umami flavor and reminded him of salmorejo (one of his favorite dishes that I learned to make in Spain), and salmorejo is indeed garlicky, then the secret to the round flavor must be garlic. At this point, curiosity overcame our reluctance to bug our waiter, so when he came over to fill our water glasses we asked him what was in the soup.
“Cucumbers, yogurt, and tarragon,” he listed. Well, duh. These are the three ingredients listed on the menu. That’s all? “That's all,” he assured us, graciously but definitively. He must get this question all the time. But what about the oil that the tarragon leaves were suspended in? “Well, that’s olive oil,” he said offhandedly, as if to say, Doesn’t everything contain olive oil?
Then he also confided proudly that the yogurt was made with goat milk. This surprised me, since I couldn’t taste one iota of goaty-ness. The yogurt must come from local goat farmers. Even with its immense subtlety, though, the goat couldn’t be the secret weapon of the soup. There was something else happening. Now I had to figure it out.
On our way home we stopped by the store, and I bought cucumbers and goat milk yogurt. Experiments commenced, and here’s what I found. Mike and I agree, it really is that simple. Five ingredients compose this rich yet refreshing soup: Cucumbers, yogurt, salt, oil, and tarragon (and a touch of water for the right constency. Does this count?).
So where was the garlic? It was the olive oil. That garlicky salmorejo Mike loves also contains a generous amount of olive oil, so the association has stuck for Mike’s palate. This is why olive oil is the new garlic. But I totally get it. Mike correctly pointed out that I have my own flavor associations. Tarragon tasting like treehouses? Hah.
Notes About Making This Soup
Just to see, I tried adding a hint of garlic powder, because I felt that fresh garlic would be too overwhelming for this relatively subtle flavor. If you let the soup chill for awhile and let the garlic flavor calm down, it does taste good with a touch of garlic powder—but it’s probably not what we were tasting the other night. I also tried scallions of varying amounts. It was definitely not scallions, or any onion, in that soup last Friday.
The pungent grocery store goat yogurt is not going to work if you make this soup. I might try goat yogurt from the farmers’ market, but meanwhile, I recommend that you go for the rich and flavorful Greek yogurt. I’m guessing any full fat yogurt would also taste good, if you can’t get your hands on Greek.
If tarragon is not your flavor of choice, you can substitute it with another fresh herb. I also tried it with dill and it was lovely. As with the tarragon, though, keep the herb-to-oil ratio low. The soup is mostly about the cucumber. You could even just drizzle the oil without herbs at all and it should still have that great summertime-treat flavor.
Finally, like all cold soups that I know of, there’s quite a bit of salt. The cooler temperature diminishes the flavor of salt, so you need more salt in a cold soup than you do in a warm soup. And by the way, this soup would be nothing without salt. And when I say salt, I’m talking about the kind you cannot smell.
Chilled Cucumber Soup with Tarragon Oil
Adapted from How to Cook a Wolf’s menu
- 4 cups chilled cucumber that has been peeled, seeded, and chopped very coarsely
- ½ cup plus 2 small dollops yogurt
- 1 tsp plus one pinch kosher salt
- 4 T best quality extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/2 tsp minced tarragon
- Puree the cucumber in a blender until smooth. Add ½ cup yogurt, 1 tsp salt, and 2 T of the olive oil. Blend thoroughly.
- Pour tarragon and pinch of salt into a tiny bowl, and gently bruise the tarragon by pressing it with the back of a spoon against the granules of salt to release the flavor. Stir together with 2 T olive oil.
- Pour soup into small bowls or glasses, and top with a dollop of yogurt and a drizzle of the tarragon oil.
Makes 3 cups – 4 small servings or 2 larger ones.