Everything you ever wanted to know about making soup that's splendid

December 26, 1993|By Connie Coning | Connie Coning,Chicago Tribune

A pleasant way to spend a chilly winter day would be to curl up with a good book and a steamy cup of soup. James Peterson provides both in his latest endeavor, "Splendid Soups" (Bantam, $29.95).

The 504-page book contains no pictures except for the cover, but more than 400 recipes for the world's best soups and the master techniques for making them. The book contains everything you ever wanted to know -- and more -- about making soup.

Mr. Peterson is a French-trained chef and New Yorker who teaches home cooks and professionals at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School.

In "Splendid Soups," he speaks to beginners and experts in an informal way that invites you into his kitchen with a spoon and bowl in hand.

"The beauty of soups," he says, "is that you don't need much more than a knife for chopping, a pot for cooking and a bowl for eating."

He begins by focusing on equipment and serving utensils. He recommends a food processor, a blender or food mill for grinding and chopping. Mr. Peterson himself prefers chopping vegetables hand so they come out in presentable shapes.

Next, he deals with ingredients, from almonds and bonito (a fish related to tuna and considered a delicacy in Spain and in France's Basque region) to kim chee (a pickled cabbage used as a condiment in Korea) to tree ears (dark, leafy mushrooms that attached themselves to fallen trees and rotting wood, used in Chinese cooking) and yuzu, a Japanese citrus. He offers details on where and how to buy these ingredients.

Peterson is an inventive cook. "I rarely prepare dishes according to an exact recipe because I never like to cook the same thing twice," he says. Although he says it's more fun playing around with flavors and ingredients, he almost always adheres to ingredients true to a region or nation so he won't end up with a hodgepodge of flavors.

Cooking tips appear throughout the book. In his chapter on ethnic soups, he talks about Asian quick-cooked dishes vs. the long-simmered soups of Americans and Europeans. Asian cooks use highly flavored ingredients that release their flavors immediately; in contrast, Europeans and Americans usually include potatoes, carrots and large chunks of meat -- all long-cooking ingredients, he says.

Other tips include tricks for cooking squash; many uses of ghee, a rich clarified butter for Indian-style soups; how to find truly fresh fish; selecting wine vinegar; combining chicken and shellfish; cutting up a duck; and making your own hominy.

Health-conscious cooks will appreciate Mr. Peterson's suggestions for cutting out or reducing fat in broths and soups. Although he trained in Paris restaurants and admits to loving cream, butter, duck fat and other fatty substances, he believes in moderation without abstinence.

Among his tips: Don't allow meat broths to boil, which will churn the fat back into the broth; don't precook the vegetables in fat; thicken soups with vegetable purees; substitute lighter ingredients such as yogurt for the richer ones such as cream.

Mr. Peterson offers straight-forward instructions for a variety of soups and ways to improvise, using the flavors of Indonesia, Mexico, France, Italy, Japan and China, to name a few. You can choose from broths, consommes and simple broth-based soups; vegetable soups, including beans, lentils and dried peas; fish, bivalve shellfish and crustacean soups; meat; bread; yogurt, cheese and buttermilk; and fruit soups.

Here are two recipes, as they appear in the book, that will work well for the holidays.

Sweet potato, chili and lime soup

Makes 6 servings

2 medium-size onions, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 pounds sweet potatoes, about 4, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick

1 quart chicken broth

2 jalapeno chilies, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and finely chopped

3 poblano chilies, roasted, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup corn oil

4 corn tortillas, cut into 1- by 1/4 -inch strips

Juice of 2 limes or more to taste

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup sour cream

Sour cream

Lime wedges

Gently cook the onions and garlic in the butter in a 4-quart pot over medium heat until the onions turn translucent, about 10 minutes.

Add the sweet potatoes and broth to the onion mixture; bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and keep at a slow simmer until the sweet potatoes have softened and are easy to crush against the side of the pot with a fork, about 20 minutes.

Add the jalapeno and roasted poblano chilies to the soup and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes more.

Heat the corn oil over high heat in a medium-size skillet until its surface ripples. Turn the heat down to medium-low and fry the tortilla strips for about 1 minute. Drain them on paper towels.

Puree the soup in a blender or put it through the fine disk of a food mill and strain it through a medium-mesh strainer. Stir in the lime juice to taste and season with salt and pepper.

Combine the chopped cilantro with the olive oil.

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