Cooking for one: When smoothies and soups converge

July 5, 2011

My mother blended up smoothies aplenty for me when I was a busy high schooler, juggling the geek trifecta of band practice, math club meetings and school-newspaper work. The ingredients varied a little — orange juice one day, apple the next — but along with some ice for cold froth, a banana was a must. How else would it get the silky texture that gives the drink its name?

When I was in college in Austin in the mid-1980s, smoothies were just starting to have a moment. At my favorite independent juice bar (long before Jamba Juice bounced into town), the innovation was to freeze the banana first and leave out the ice, making the drink even thicker and more concentrated in flavor. I took the recipe home, where I lived with roommates but we all fended for ourselves. At breakfast and as a post-workout fuel-up, smoothies were my go-to.

In their move to ubiquity (even McDonald’s serves them now), smoothies have also been on the receiving end of just about every health-oriented food trend to come along: protein powder, soy milk, pomegranate juice, acai berry. And then vegetables started showing up, and not just in the form of the already-sweet beet and carrot juices. Once Dr. Mehmet Oz publicized his “green drink” in 2006, the Oprah-worshipping world started throwing kale, collards, spinach, chard and the like into the blender, too, proving that in the right balance, smoothies might be able to handle just about anything.

Why did I jump on the bandwagon? Well, like so many others, I’ve been trying to get my greens in wherever I can, especially since realizing just how nutrition-packed they are. Plus, the smoothie strategy extends the life of greens that are close to succumbing to the influences of what I like to call my refrigerator’s “rotter” drawer.

Even better, if you’re one of those people who find greens off-puttingly bitter, this might be one of the best ways of disguising them. Author Louisa Shafia has been a green-smoothie fan ever since she first started using them as a way to get her husband to eat more greens, and her recipe in “Lucid Food” (Ten Speed Press, 2009) also mixes in carrots, apple, banana, oranges, nuts and water.


Left to right: Cool and Spicy Mango Soup (or Smoothie) and Green Gazpacho (or Smoothie) photographed on June 28, 2011 in Potomac, MD. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“People are always surprised by how tasty it is,” she wrote in an e-mail from Paris. “It’s got a lot of sweetness and body from the oranges and banana, so the bitterness of the leafy greens is mellowed.”

Now that the weather makes me want to keep everything as cool in the kitchen as possible, I’ve begun to make smoothies every so often at dinnertime as well. And that’s where I’ve started to stumble. The problem is that, nutrition and even flavor aside, drinking my supper out of a glass just doesn’t seem satisfying. It feels too reminiscent of the unfortunate time so long ago that I tried one of those “shake for breakfast, shake for lunch, sensible dinner” diets.

A colleague asked the question that set me on the right path: Why not eat the smoothie out of a bowl, with garnishes and everything?

Boy, was she on to something, and soon enough, so was I. A few more rounds of experimentation later, and I realized that I could cross this boundary pretty easily. A pureed mango-and-yogurt soup I had recently at the El Naranjo food trailer in Austin had been served as an chilled appetizer garnished with jicama, peanuts and cilantro. When I made it at home, I added shrimp to turn it into a meal, then tried it again, blending in some of the garnishes and leaving others out; it became positively drinkable. It’s not green, but it’s healthful nonetheless.

Sometimes, the hunt for a green smoothie leads to misnomers. I was intrigued, for instance, by a green gazpacho in the “Everything Green Smoothies Book” (Adams Media, 2011). But is it really a smoothie, as advertised?

Shafia would say no. She points to her watermelon gazpacho in “Lucid Food,” which, like the green gazpacho, has garlic and onions in it. “It goes down so easily,” she wrote in an email, so instead of eating it from a bowl, “you may want to drink it.”

But a smoothie is more than a mere blended drink. “It has to have something fatty or rich in it, like nuts or a banana, because if it’s all ice and fruit then it’s no longer a smoothie, it’s more of a ‘slushie,’ ” she told me. (By that definition, which I support, Dr. Oz’s drink isn’t a smoothie, either.) And it needs to be at least a little sweet.

Before I had heard her analysis, I was moving in the same direction. In downscaling and otherwise tinkering with the green gazpacho, I immediately knew I’d add an avocado for that silky fattiness, and when the taste was close but not quite there, I instinctively reached for one final ingredient: a squeeze from the honey bottle.

Another smoothie was born. Once I reserved some of the ingredients and chopped them up for a garnish, so was a soup.

Yonan is author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool.
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