Vegetarian soups chase away spring chills

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

CONCORD, N.H. -- Because spring has a nasty way of turning chilly when you least expect it, it's always good to have on hand a few easy-to-make dishes to warm you on damp and drizzly days.

The goal is to keep the meal hearty and warming enough to chase away the chills without sending you back to the heavy-duty dishes you craved in the depth of winter.

For an easy warm sandwich, dice a medium onion and saute in olive oil until tender. Season with salt and pepper, then add to the pan a 12-ounce package of vegetarian "ground beef" (usually sold in the frozen food section).

Adding water if needed to prevent sticking, saute until the "beef" is heated through. Season with chili powder, then add enough jarred marinara sauce to make a thick mixture, about 1 cup. Simmer for another 2 minutes.

Split a short baguette down the center. Spoon the mixture into the baguette and enjoy.

Soups also make great chill-chasers. Many of them can be thrown together in just minutes, often with whatever is on hand. The only rule: Keep them light. We're not aiming for the sturdy stews that got us through December.

My all-purpose vegetarian spring soup usually starts with a light saute of diced onion in extra-virgin olive oil. If I want it hot, I throw in a teaspoon each of paprika and crushed red pepper flakes, or even grated fresh ginger.

When the onions are tender, start adding your vegetables. Frozen peas and corn are good, as are fresh carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks and potatoes. Saute them (with a few tablespoons of water or oil if needed) for a few moments.

Now add broth or water until it covers the ingredients by about 1 inch. Let this simmer over a medium flame for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

Now decide what sort of soup you want. For something savory, stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons of dark miso (a salty soybean paste), and several cups of cooked brown rice or pasta. Simmer until warmed through and serve immediately.

For something a little silkier, add 1 cup cooked white rice, then transfer the soup (in batches if need be) to a blender and puree until chunky-smooth. Return to pot, season as needed and simmer another 2 minutes.

Two other simple soups to warm your heart this spring are French carrot soup and Venetian bean soup, from Jill Dupleix's "Favorite Foods."

Dupleix's recipe for French carrot soup calls for a little butter. For those who don't do dairy, soy margarine would be a fine substitute, as would olive oil. The buttery flavor of corn oil is even better. Parsley can be substituted for chervil.

Since we don't want these recipes to take long (the sun could be out again before long-simmered soups are done), Dupleix's Venetian bean soup has been modified to use canned beans instead of dry. Both recipes also call for chicken broth, but vegetable broth works just fine.

French Carrot Soup

(Preparation 40 minutes)

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon butter (or alternative)

8 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

1 onion, chopped

5 cups boiling vegetable broth

3 tablespoons white rice, rinsed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped chervil

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium stockpot over a medium flame. Add the carrots and onion and toss to coat. Cover, lower flame and cook for 10 minutes, adding water if needed to prevent sticking.

Add the broth and rice. Cover and cook another 20 minutes.

Transfer soup to a blender or food processor (in batches if necessary) and puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and reheat. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in remaining butter. To serve, sprinkle each bowl with chervil.

Makes 4 servings.

Venetian Bean Soup

(Preparation 40 minutes)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

15-ounce can borlotti (or other white) beans

8 cups boiling vegetable broth

28-ounce can whole tomatoes

1 cup small pasta

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (or soy alternative)

Heat the oil over a medium flame in a large pot. Add the onion and garlic and saute until soft, about 4 minutes. Add half the can of beans and the broth and simmer until heated through. Add the tomatoes and simmer another 10 minutes.

Using a potato masher or the back of a fork, mash the remaining beans in a small bowl. Add the mashed beans to the soup along with the pasta. Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until pasta is tender.

Season to taste, add an additional swirl of olive oil and sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the soup. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

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