It's hard to believe, in this era of the can, that soup was once the highlight of the meal. Yet for hundreds of years, servants have carried it forth in grand tureens to serve to the royal and the wealthy.
You can savor the glories of soup with neither title nor hefty bankroll by inviting friends to a tasting party devoted just to soup.
"People really like homemade soup. With the pace of life being so hectic, it's such a luxury," says Columbia resident Nancy Baggett, co-author with Ruth Glick of the new book, "Skinny Soups" (Surrey Books, paperback, $11.95).
"It's not terribly expensive to have a soup party. But it's the time it took to make them [the soups] that you're giving to your guests," Ms. Baggett says.
A tasting party can be put together with just four different soups. And even the timid can do it with success. "Even an occasional cook with a good recipe and good ingredients can make a decent soup," Ms. Baggett says.
Look for variety in tastes and textures when planning the menu. Mix exotic and traditional, creamy with clear. Mix poultry and seafood with vegetable. "You could do all Italian soups, all French soups, all chowders or all vegetarian if you wanted to," she adds.
To estimate the amount of soup you'll need to make, count on each person having one cup of each of the soups and then add a cup more.
Ms. Baggett likes to label the soups because, she says, everyone ends up talking about them.
The order of sampling is important. Start with those with the most delicate flavors. "Your palate can be wiped out by strong flavors, by pepper or by curry," Ms. Baggett says. "Save those for last."
Most of Ms. Baggett's soup-tasting parties havebeen informal get-togethers. "Somehow soup just has that feel," she says.
You can have people just serve themselves, and you can even serve it from the stove if your kitchen is large enough.
Ms. Baggett and Ms. Glick created recipes for their book that have under 30 percent fat. "You can serve something warming and convivial and still have a light menu," Ms. Baggett says.
To avoid a lot of last-minute work, make and freeze one or two recipes the weekend before your party. Then others can be made the night before. Most soup recipes -- except those for seafood soups which Ms. Baggett doesn't like to store -- can keep for a day or two.
Although Ms. Baggett and Ms. Glick give recipes for homemade stocks in their cookbook, they think that probably nine out of 10 people will use canned stocks. "It takes time to make homemade, and you need a large stock pot," Ms. Baggett says.
To go with the soups, Ms. Baggett recommends good yeast breads or muffins. Bread, she says, refreshes the palate between courses. Follow the meal with a special dessert. After all the cooking you've done to make the soups, you might want to buy a dessert already made.
For a soup party, Ms. Baggett recommends serving an interesting variety of soups. She suggests starting with a mild soup such as her recipe for green onion-potato soup with dill. Then the flavors of each succeeding soup can get increasingly peppery and flavorful.
4( Here are some recipes from the book:
Green onion-potato soup with dill
Makes 6 to 7 servings.
1 tablespoon non-diet, tub-style margarine
2 1/2 cups green onions (including tops), chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose white flour
6 cups chicken stock or broth (defatted), divided
1 3/4 cups boiling potatoes, peeled and finely cubed
1/4 teaspoon white pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh dillweed, or 1 tablespoon dried dillweed, finely chopped
1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt
salt to taste
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt margarine. Add green onions and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until smoothly incorporated. Cook, stirring, for 30 seconds longer.
Gradually stir in 3 cups stock until thoroughly and smoothly incorporated into flour mixture. Add potatoes, pepper, and dill and bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 12 minutes until potato is tender; stir frequently to prevent potato from sticking to pan bottom.
Using a measuring cup, scoop up about 1/2 cup of vegetables and liquid and transfer mixture to blender. Add 1 cup more stock and the yogurt. Blend until thoroughly pureed, about 30 seconds. Return puree to pot, stirring, until piping hot but not boiling, about 5 minutes. Stir in salt, if desired, and serve.
This soup will keep in refrigerator up to 3 days. Be careful not to allow it to boil during reheating.
Chunky chicken and pasta soup
Makes 5 to 6 servings.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound chicken breast halves, boned and skinned, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes (meat from 2 medium-sized breast halves)
3 1/2 cups chicken broth (defatted), divided
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 large sweet green pepper, diced
1/2 large sweet red pepper, diced (if unavailable, substitute 1/2 large sweet green pepper)
1 14 1/2 to 16-ounce can tomatoes (preferably Italian plum), including juice