Souped Up

On a chilly winter day, a hot bowl of soup revitalizes body and soul.

January 09, 2002|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

When it comes to warding off a winter chill, nothing works quite so well as a steamy, hot bowl of soup.

The antidote to cold weather's ills can be as quick as opening a can. But with some time and a bit of effort, you can make your own soup that will warm both body and soul.

Homemade soup has some distinct advantages over what you buy in a can: It is more economical, it uses up leftovers, it tastes better -- and perhaps best of all, the very act of making soup elicits a comforting feeling that can't be sealed in a can.

"In the kind of world we are living it, it truly represents one of those home-style products you can't buy," says Alfie Himmelrich, owner of the Stone Mill Bakery, which serves homemade soups at its stores in Roland Park and Green Spring Station.

Himmelrich is a firm believer that good soup starts with good stock, or broth. "You can make from one good stock a huge variety of soups," he says. "Once you have good stock, the rest is easy."

Making the stock is the most time-consuming part of making soup. Cookbooks suggest simmering the stock for at least three hours. At the Stone Mill Bakery, the stock stays on the stove overnight.

Although making the broth takes time, it is work done mainly by the stove, not the cook, says James Peterson, author of Splendid Soups (John Wiley & Sons, 2001, $45), a 635-page book on soup making. While the stock simmers, the cook can watch television or read a book, pausing occasionally to skim the fat and impurities that rise to the surface and to make sure the liquid does not come to a boil. Once made, the stock can be stored in the freezer for months.

"It's easier than people think," he says.

Not only does Peterson consider soup making one of the easiest of culinary arts, he says it is also one that allows almost unlimited variations. Indeed, as he points out in his book, soup making is practically universal, crossing cultures and cuisines.

"Only grilling is more primal," he says.

Soup making is ancient, but Peterson has noticed a change in the public's appetite. "Five years ago, you couldn't add fat in the soup beause people thought they were going to die," he says. Today, people are more tolerant of the fat content.

In his new book, Peterson also has noted the increasing popularity of Latin cuisine, including more soup recipes that use fresh and dried chilies, bolder flavors and even some unusual ingredients like octopus.

Yet one thing that hasn't changed is soup's versatility. Depending on the ingredients and the way they are prepared, soup can be as refreshing in the summer as it is comforting in the winter.

It can be a tantalizing appetizer, a main course or a satisfying dessert. It can be a quick meal for one, reheated in the microwave, or a sumptuous dinner for guests. At the Stone Mill Bakery, the most popular winter soup is a vegetable soup that the bakery offers as a gazpacho in the summertime.

"It's one of those great things to learn how to cook," says Donna Crivello, owner of Donna's Coffee Bars and Restaurants, who each year offers classes on how to make soup. "Most of the basic soups are easy to make," she says.

Usually recipes begin by cooking flavorful meats, such as ham or bacon, then the aromatic vegetables -- cabbage, carrots, tomatoes or onions. Next come beans or other starchy vegetables, the liquid such as the broth, wine or water, then the quick-cooking vegetables and the pastas and, finally, flavorful finishes such as tender herbs, cream, pesto or olive oil. Most soups can be ready in less than an hour, if the stock is already prepared.

Like Himmelrich, Crivello believes in using homemade stock to enhance the soup's flavor and to control the amount of salt.

But cookbook author Diane Rossen Worthington, who wrote a recently published book about soup for Williams-Sonoma (Williams-Sonoma Soup, Simon & Schuster, 2001, $16.95), says sometimes a good canned or frozen stock or even water will work just fine.

The key to good soup, she says, is fresh herbs and a few secret ingredients -- a dash of lime juice or a little balsamic vinegar for flavor. She cautions against using too much water, which can dilute the flavor.

The equipment needed to make soup is no more complicated than a heavy stockpot and a ladle, although Worthington is a big fan of immersion blenders that make it easy to puree ingredients directly in the pot.

Once made, soup can provide meals for days, with the flavor often getting better over time. A vegetable soup can become a vegetable and bean soup and then a vegetable, bean and pasta soup, Crivello says.

Crivello likes a Tuscan acquacotta, a vegetable soup that can be transformed into a thick ribolitta the next day by dishing it over rustic bread and baking it in the oven for a few minutes.

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