Growing up with my mother’s Rhodes-oriented cooking, meals always began with a fruit course and the salad was served last, just before dessert. This order, by the way, has been in practice for centuries and is documented in medieval cookbooks. The fruit starter is a simple affair, generally no more than a piece of chilled melon or half a grapefruit, but an absolute essential. Melon especially gives a gentle wakeup call to the stomach, and the different fruits provide some much-needed seasonal nutrients – potassium in summer, vitamin C in winter. The Italians top melon with sliced prosciutto – delicious, though clearly not something you’d be doing in a kosher home ( I have a friend from Buenos Aires, which is heavily Italian, whose mother compensates by serving melon with a slice of pastrami). In Sephardic tradition, though, our fruit course is strictly vegetarian. If you want a touch of saltiness with your melon, add a few grains of salt.
When a melon is delicious it needs no embellishment, but that’s a rare treat. You never know what you’re going to get with melons, and more often than not they need a little kick to coax out some flavor. Fresh mint leaves or a squeeze of citrus are the traditional quick fixes, but they can’t do anything for texture and as much as I love a good melon, munching on big hunks of tough, underripe fruit is not a pleasure, it is a chore – especially in the heat of deep summer, when the tiniest bit of over-exertion is too much and I’d just as soon be absorbing my nutrients by floating in the sea.
Enter the cold soup, something I assure you we never, ever ate in our house, where the Sephardic cooking was very, very traditional. That said, lest we forget, Jewish cooking may have deeply rooted traditions but one of those is adaptability – to climate, geography and, in this case, the disappointing reality of industrialized agriculture.
So, a few guilt-free riffs on the first course melon tradition. Three chilled melon soups, very simple affairs in keeping with Ottoman-Sephardic culinary style: a single, simple technique applied to a handful of ingredients, to yield a remarkable variety of flavors. If Grandma had had an immersion blender (and less than exciting melons), no doubt she would have done the same.