Winter warm-ups Hot soups bowl diners over in heartwarming way

January 12, 1994

Simple and satisfying, lovely for lunch, super for supper -- what could be more appealing than soup? Especially when the temperature dips and the days seem long and dark.

Recalls Harold Marmelstein, executive chef at the Polo Grill, "I grew up in upstate New York, where it's real cold, so in the winter I want a good, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs type of soup -- bean soup with a nice ham bone in it, or a thick minestrone with lots of pasta and prosciutto."

Mr. Marmelstein said that while the Polo Grill, at the Inn at the Colonnade, still offers its notably creamy crab and corn chowder, "a lot of people are asking for cream-less soups." So he offers soups based on vegetable purees or broths. A creamless tomato soup with basil and rice is one example.

"The thing that draws me to them is that soups are so versatile," says James Peterson, author of the recent book "Splendid Soups." "You can make them out of almost anything." Soup is warming in the winter and refreshing in the summer -- "and you can even do dessert soups," Mr. Peterson says.

Soup is so popular in U.S. households that it can be found on pantry shelves more often than eggs, pasta, sugar, paper towels, coffee and colas, according to the Campbell Soup Co. For many youngsters, "alphabet" soup is their earliest introduction to this comforting substance. And, Campbell notes, soup is the fourth most popular ingredient used to prepare evening meals, behind only meat/poultry, pasta/rice and seasonings.

Campbell's, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, today produces about 200 kinds of soup in its retail lines; people in the United States buy 2.5 billion cans of Campbell's per year. Soup consumption is pretty much uniform across the country, though certain soups sell better in certain cities -- folks in Louisville, Ky., eat more chicken noodle soup per capita, folks in Milwaukee eat more Cheddar cheese soup, while Philadelphians prefer pepper-pot soup -- said to have originated in the Valley Forge area during George Washington's Revolutionary War sojourn there. Canadians really like French pea soup, which isn't even sold in the U.S. market.

And Baltimore leads the country in per capita consumption of black bean soup and tomato bisque, and is among the top three in consumption of cream of chicken, according to Kevin Lowery, director of public information for Campbell's.

Though it is perennially popular, soup is not a static commodity, Mr. Lowery says. Products change continually to meet consumer desires -- "consumer hot buttons," Mr. Lowery calls them. Those issues today include convenience ("Look for more portability") and health ("Look for soups with more vegetables"). In addition, Campbell's plans to continue expanding "flavor profiles."

"Broccoli is very popular right now," Mr. Lowery says, so in addition to cream of broccoli, Campbell's has added broccoli cheese soup and had just introduced cream of chicken and broccoli.

Simple soups

Mr. Peterson wasn't, he recalls, a big fan of soup as a child. But then, as a young adult, he boarded temporarily with a family in the south of France, and feasted on simple soups -- "broths with little chunks of vegetables mixed in." Lunch was the big meal, while dinner might consist of soup, perhaps a little salad, cheese, bread and wine. The soups weren't meant to knock your socks off, he says. "It was just meant to be simple, honest things."

That was the beginning of a changed attitude toward soup. "And becoming even more enamored with them, since researching the book," he says.

Mr. Peterson, who grew up in California, studied cooking in France, cooked in French restaurants, then ran Le Petit Robert restaurant in New York for four years. Since then, he's been teaching and writing. His last book was "Sauces," (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992, $39.95) and, as things often do in cooking, one thing led to another.

became fascinated with the whole idea of serving foods surrounded by a broth, rather than a sauce." A well-prepared broth can be every bit as flavorful as a rich sauce, despite being far lower in calories, he says. "It's free of fat, but there's a delicacy to it."

Whereas "Sauces" was aimed at serious cooks, "Splendid Soups" (Bantam Books, 1993, $29.95) he says "is more a feeling of talking to people, and walking them through it."

Soups, Mr. Peterson says, are a snap. "The main thing I tell people is that soups are easy."

If you don't have an ingredient, substitute something similar. "With soups, the thing that gets people stuck is making stock -- so nowhere in the book do I use the word stock." Telling people to make "broth" is much less daunting, he says. "I'm trying to give them options. There's a section in the book on broth, where I say, 'This is how you do it.' But then I give them alternatives -- how to make canned broth better, by sauteing some chopped onion in it -- or to go to the local Chinese restaurant and buy broth there."

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