Stir a taste of spring into that soup pot

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sally Sampson's dining room is painted the color of tomato bisque, and her kitchen walls look like bright pumpkin or carrot soup.

The latter is exactly what simmered on the stove one recent morning, as sunlight bounced off the last snowfall outside.

Just because the ground is finally thawing doesn't mean the soup ladle has to hibernate.

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In her latest cookbook, "Souped Up!" ($22, Simon & Schuster, 202 pp.), Sampson proves there's a soup for all seasons - even spring. It's the perfect time, she says, for smooth soups made with fresh vegetables such as asparagus, artichokes, and peas.

As her paint choices might suggest, this is a house where soup is taken seriously. A look around confirms this: Chicken stock is piled up by the case. A gold-framed sign reads, "Only the pure of heart can make a good soup." And Sampson's young daughter gulps down miso soup for breakfast.

"Almost all flavors translate well into soup," Sampson says. "It's not like baking. Baking is more like chemistry. With soup, you throw everything in without necessarily measuring it. It's more intuitive."

She started making soups at 14, when she declared herself a vegetarian, and her mother told her she had to learn to cook for herself. At 25, she opened her own food shop, where she earned a reputation for her soups.

Now she's a full-time cookbook writer, and soup and salad remain dinner staples for her husband and two children. There's always a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette or Caesar dressing in her refrigerator. And "Souped Up!" includes recipes for salad dressing as well as for breads and sweets.

On this day, she makes a carrot-ginger soup - a simple recipe with only carrots, leeks, a kick of ginger, and cream.

"Simplicity is key," Sampson says, adding, "I'm essentially lazy." She cuts unpeeled vegetables into coarse blocks and cooks them in a copper pot before adding a box of chicken stock. Store-bought stock will do, she says. It's the vegetables that dominate the flavor.

The kitchen smells like rich, freshly cut carrots. She purées them in a blender with the other ingredients. The result is a vivid, almost fluorescent orange. A little cream tones it down.

Her soup matches the walls exactly. Sampson says that's just a coincidence.

Asparagus Soup With Fresh Herbs

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, olive oil, or canola oil
1 Spanish (red) onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, pressed or finely chopped
4 to 5 cups chicken stock
2 bunches fresh asparagus, woody stems broken off and discarded, stalks and tips chopped
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon or rosemary leaves, or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves, plus additional for garnish
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh chopped chives, for garnish (optional)
Parmesan, goat, or feta cheese (optional)

Place a stockpot over medium heat and, when it is hot, add the butter or oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook until tender and lightly colored, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the stock, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil.

Add the asparagus, and when it returns to a rolling boil, remove the solids and place in a blender. Add the tarragon and Dijon mustard. Process until smooth, gradually adding the cooking liquid.

Strain the soup if you must. Serve immediately, garnished with chives and Parmesan cheese.

Makes about 5 cups.

Ginger Carrot Soup With Cream

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Spanish (red) onion, coarsely chopped (could substitute leeks)
2 pounds carrots, peeled, if desired, and sliced
Pinch ground cinnamon
8 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons peeled, coarsely chopped, fresh ginger root
1/2 cup heavy cream (could substitute buttermilk or orange or apple juice)
Chopped fresh parsley or chives, for garnish

Place a heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium heat and, when it is hot, add the butter. When the butter has melted, add the onion and carrots and cook until tender and lightly colored, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the cinnamon, stock, and ginger, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to low, and cook for 30 minutes.

Remove the solids and place in a food processor or blender. Process until completely smooth, gradually adding the cooking liquid and heavy cream. Transfer to a container, cover, and refrigerate up to three days, or serve immediately, garnished with parsley or chives.

Makes 10 to 12 cups.

- Recipes from 'Souped Up!' by Sally Sampson

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