Sweet or simple, soup sustains

From hearty chowders to chilled bowls of puréed fruit, there is a soup for every season.

Of soup and love, the first is best.
– Spanish proverb

Ummmm? Maybe not. But one thing there's no doubt about is the universal love and availability of soup.

Every culture has its favorite recipes with which it feeds the hungry, nurses the sick, and comforts the weary. Recipes are as countless as the stars.

Where would the Slavs be without their beloved borscht? The Scots have their cock-a-leekie, traditionally a combination of chicken, leeks, and – gulp – prunes. The Belgians do a different take on chicken soup under an equally odd name, waterzooie. And what Jewish mother worth her weight in kosher salt hasn't claimed to have raised the dead with her homemade chicken soup? The Spanish classic, cold vegetable gazpacho, has become a favorite far beyond Madrid, and Italy has its equally popular minestrone, thickened with pasta and red kidney beans.

Fruit soups have never really been as wildly popular in the United States as in northern and eastern Europe. Don't be surprised to find a fruit soup topped with a dollop of sour cream served hot or cold before a meal, or as dessert in Scandinavia. The Hungarians enjoy a semi-sweet cherry soup in season.

In most Japanese restaurants, a lacquer bowl of miso comes with the sushi without even being ordered. In France and China, nothing is safe from their soup pot.

And so it goes.

Soups come in many styles: A thick chowder can rival a stew in satisfying heartiness; and thin broths of consommé, served in the most tony restaurants, are there to bring the palate to attention before the entree is served, and what is more elegant than a warm creamy bisque of purée of Maine lobster or Maryland blue crab?

The right soup can rise to any social occasion. A chilled bowl of Vichyssoise à la Ritz, served in a Flora Dancia bowl and sipped from the side of a proper Tiffany silver spoon, and you could invite the queen herself to lunch. Or, if Her Majesty is busy doing laundry, ask Helen Mirren (who will know the difference?).

A cup of Campbell's tomato soup and a toasted cheese sandwich will satisfy any kid home from Little League practice. And any hot soup poured by an exhausted hiker from a thermos on a mountain trail is guaranteed to bring the summit closer.

The addition of homemade stock, milk, or cream, instead of water; grated cheese, leftover pasta, and cubes of pan-toasted buttered croutons can do wonders for even the most humble canned soups. A sprinkling of chopped herbs can add an additional boost, or a dash of Worcestershire sauce or hot sauce for the daring. Just because you want the convenience of a prepared soup doesn't mean you can't put your own signature on it to give it that Emeril Lagasse "Bam!"

Lately, soup has suffered its share of indignities. Cardboard cups of overly salted, insipid soups are there in most office vending machines, bus stations, and college dorms waiting to be unceremoniously zapped in a microwave and slurped down with a plastic spoon.

No matter where you are or what the occasion, you're never far from a bowl of satisfying soup.

Crab and Corn Chowder

4 tablespoons butter

1 cup onions, finely chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
1 14-ounce can cream-style corn
1 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups frozen corn kernels (thawed), or
4 cups fresh
Freshly ground pepper
2 cups crabmeat, preferably fresh or pasteurized
Tabasco or your favorite hot sauce, to taste
Paprika (optional)
Chopped coriander (cilantro) or parsley for garnish
In a large, heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and celery; sauté until soft, about five to seven minutes.

Add clam juice, cream-style corn, water, cream, corn kernels, and pepper to taste. Cook five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add crab meat. When heated through, add a dash or two of Tabasco or hot sauce. Add a small amount of water to thin slightly if you prefer.

Sprinkle with a little paprika.

Serve in warm bowls. Top with coriander or parsley.

Serves 4.

Cheddar Cheese Soup

Serve this soup with thin slices of buttered, toasted pumpernickel bread. Use a mild or medium cheddar cheese, preferably a well-aged one.

4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup carrot, minced
1/2 cup celery, minced
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/4 cup flour
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 pound cheddar cheese, grated
Hot sauce or Tabasco
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Chopped chives for garnish (optional)

Melt butter in a heavy, medium-size pot over medium heat. Add carrot, celery, and onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, but not browned, about five to seven minutes. Sprinkle in flour and whisk well.

Turn heat up to medium-high and whisk in chicken broth, a little at a time. Bring heat up to boiling and cook until slightly thickened. Whisk in cream and heat until almost to the boiling point.

Reduce heat to low and stir in cheese a little at a time. When melted, add a dash or two of your favorite hot sauce or Tabasco. Season with salt and pepper. Divide soup evenly into four bowls. Top with chives before serving.

Serves 4.

Cold Hungarian Cherry Soup

This dish is a true Hungarian rhapsody. In eastern Europe it is most often served before the entree. If you find it too sweet as an appetizer, it makes an elegant dessert course.

2 pounds fresh cherries, pitted and stemmed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup heavy cream
Sour cream or plain yogurt for topping
Orange or lemon zest or mint sprigs for garnish (optional)

Combine cherries (reserving a few for garnish if you like), lemon juice, cinnamon, 2 cups water, and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil and cook about 10 minutes until cherries are very soft. Mix cornstarch with remaining 2 tablespoons cold water until dissolved. Add to hot soup and cook, stirring, for one minute. Purée mixture in a food processor or blender; refrigerate overnight or until chilled. Stir in heavy cream. Serve in individual soup bowls topped with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt. Top with a few cherries, zest, and/or mint sprigs.

Serves 4 to 6.

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