Soups add warmth without adding girth

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

CONCORD, N.H. -- When it's chilly outside, it's time to put on a pot of soup inside.

Soups and stews not only have an incredible power to create inviting meals and warm the body, they also are a terrific way to add luscious -- even creamy -- dishes to your diet without adding fat.

My favorite cool-weather soup is pureed winter squash with apples. After simmering in a bit of soy milk and sweet miso, butternut squash and apples puree into a light and heavenly soup just right for the season.

Of course, there also are traditional vegetable and noodle soups. Start with a can of crushed tomato, a quart of vegetable broth, a handful of small pasta and a can of chickpeas, then add whatever vegetables and fresh herbs you have.

Creamy corn chowder is another easy one. Simmer a diced onion, finely diced potatoes and several cups of frozen corn kernels in soy milk until the potatoes are tender. Season with salt and pepper then puree half the batch and stir together.

To add even more creaminess to the corn chowder, puree in a package of soy or dairy cream cheese.

Just about any soup can be improved by giving the vegetables a quick saute in olive oil, which deepens flavors. Heat your stockpot over a medium flame, then add several tablespoons of oil and the vegetables, especially onion, carrots and corn.

Also saute any seasonings, especially dried herbs; the heat and the oil heighten the flavors. Simmer until vegetables are lightly brown, then proceed with the soup as directed.

In her book, "A Beautiful Bowl of Soup" (Chronicle Books, 2004, $19.95), Paulette Mitchell assembles more than 60 enticing recipes for vegetarian soups and stews.

But Mitchell isn't the type to be constrained by recipes.

"Soup making is one of the most flexible, personal and enjoyable of kitchen tasks, relying as much on the cook's style and seasonal ingredients as a particular recipe," she writes.

Part of that flexibility is the ease and versatility of making soups, she explains, noting not only that many soups can be made ahead, but that most actually benefit from it and develop deeper flavors.

Many of Mitchell's recipes are vegan, and she helpfully lists those that contain no dairy. She even lists those that contain dairy products, but easily can be modified to be vegan.

As a nice touch, Mitchell includes several dessert soups, among them berry wine soup, and a chocolate soup with angel-food croutons.

To warm up your winter, try Mitchell's unusual pear and Gouda soup, or Polynesian peanut soup.

Pear and Gouda Soup

(Preparation 40 minutes)

2 ripe green pears (such as Bartlett), cored, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups vegetable stock

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, plus additional dashes

1/2 red-skinned pear, cored and julienned, but not peeled

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons minced toasted walnuts

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped dried cranberries

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

4 ounces baby Gouda cheese, cut into small pieces (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup apple juice or sweet white wine

Salt and white pepper, to taste

Combine the green pears, vegetable stock, ginger and nutmeg in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over a high flame. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until the pears are very tender, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a bowl, make a salsa by stirring together the red pear, lime juice, walnuts, cranberries and a dash of nutmeg. Set aside.

In a small saucepan melt the butter over a low flame. Add the flour and stir until smooth, about 1 minute. Do not brown the flour. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk in the milk.

Return the small saucepan to the stove and bring the milk mixture to a simmer over a medium flame, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 4 minutes.

Add the cheese to the milk mixture and stir until melted, about 1 minute. Set aside.

In a blender or food processor, puree the pear and vegetable stock mixture from the large saucepan until smooth. Return mixture to the pan and combine with the cheese mixture. Stir constantly over a low flame until heated through.

Gradually stir in the apple juice or wine and cook until heated through. Do not boil.

To serve, top each bowl of soup with a sprinkle of nutmeg and a mound of salsa.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

(Recipe from Paulette Mitchell's "A Beautiful Bowl of Soup," Chronicle Books, 2004, $19.95.)

Polynesian Peanut Soup

(Preparation 30 minutes)

1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh ginger

4 cloves garlic, minced

14-ounce can light coconut milk

3/4 cup vegetable stock

3/4 cup smooth natural peanut butter

1/4 cup mango chutney

1 tablespoon minced fresh jalapeno chili, or to taste

Salt, to taste

1/4 cup finely chopped scallions

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

Sesame oil, for garnish

In a small dry skillet, toast the coconut over a medium flame, stirring constantly, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside to cool.

Heat the oil over a medium flame in a Dutch oven or other heavy stockpot. Add the onion, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and ginger are very tender, about 10 minutes.

Transfer the onion mixture to a blender or food processor. Add the coconut milk, vegetable stock, peanut butter, chutney and jalapeno. Puree until smooth. If the peanut butter is very thick, it may be necessary to add more stock.

Transfer the soup to the Dutch oven and cook over a medium flame until heated through. Season with salt to taste.

Meanwhile, toss together the coconut, scallions and cilantro.

To serve, drizzle each bowl of soup with a bit of sesame oil and a mound of the coconut mixture.

(Recipe from Paulette Mitchell's "A Beautiful Bowl of Soup," Chronicle Books, 2004, $19.95.)

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