French pumpkin soups have sweet flavor, smooth texture

While American cooks have been stimulated by the sweet flavor and smooth texture of pumpkin to make pie fillings, the French find those same characteristics perfect for creamy soups and other pumpkin dishes.

Not only have French cooks made several creative dishes from this orange vegetable, they have also been inspired by the lovely color and richness of Cream of Pumpkin Soup to name it ''creme d'or,'' or ''golden cream.''

The pumpkin's delicate flavor enables it to harmonize well with other vegetables, and it can be added to many mixed vegetable soups.

In Perigord, in central France, for example, cooks like to add pieces of pumpkin to a soup made from dry white beans, cabbage, carrots, leeks, celery, and turnips.

Soups that feature pumpkin as the main ingredient can be prepared in a short time, because pumpkin cooks quickly and can be easily pureed.

Alexandre Dumas, in his ''Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine,'' wrote that pumpkins have been known to grow to up to 200 pounds. These giants, however, are best left for agricultural fairs. Relatively small pumpkins are easiest to use for cooking.

For soups, pumpkin is interchangeable with winter squash, such as the Hubbard , banana, acorn, or butternut varieties.

Because squash can be bought in pieces, it is often a more practical alternative to pumpkin, which must usually be bought whole. The color of the soup will vary according to the variety used, but will still be a bright, warming yellow or orange.

The easiest way to remove the tough skin is first to cut the pumpkin or squash into rather small pieces, then to cut off the peel with a sharp, heavy knife.

It is also possible to bake the soup in and serve it from the pumpkin shell, thus turning the shell into a soup tureen.

French pumpkin or squash soups are usually enriched with milk, cream, butter, or a combination of these. To emphasize the pumpkin's natural sweetness, a little sugar is sometimes added.

The traditional French garnish is sauteed croutons, but rice, pasta, green vegetables, or even toasted chopped nuts can be used. Some cooks like to accompany pumpkin soups with grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese. Be sure to add the garnish at the very last moment so it keeps its texture.

Here are some soup recipes that will help you add a touch of French gold to your winter meals.

This light, delicate soup is more colorful than its famous cousin, potato and leek soup. For this recipe, use only the white part of the leek. Pumpkin, Potato, and Leek Soup 1 pound fresh pumpkin or winter squash 2 leeks, white only 2 medium potatoes 1 1/2 cups water Salt and white pepper 1 cup milk 1/2 cup heavy cream Freshly grated nutmeg 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Cut pumpkin in pieces, peel, remove any seeds or stringy flesh, and cut in cubes. Thoroughly rinse and slice leeks. Peel potatoes and cut in pieces.

Combine pumpkin, leeks, potatoes, water, and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil, and simmer over low heat about 1/2 hour or until vegetables are very tender.

With slotted spoon, transfer vegetables to a food processor and add a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid; puree until smooth and return to saucepan containing remaining liquid. If using a blender, puree vegetables together with liquid.

Bring soup to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in milk and simmer 2 minutes over low heat. Add cream and bring to a simmer. Add white pepper and nutmeg and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle each serving with chopped parsley. Makes 4 servings.

A bright green vegetable garnish provides a contrast of color and texture to this smooth soup: Creamy Pumpkin Soup With Green Vegetables 2 pounds fresh pumpkin or winter squash 1 1/2 cups water Salt and white pepper 1 cup milk 1 tablespoon butter Green Vegetable Garnish: 2 tablespoons butter 2 leeks, rinsed thoroughly and sliced 2 tablespoons water 1/2 cup cooked fresh or defrosted frozen green peas 2 mild lettuce leaves, cut in thin strips

Cut pumpkin in pieces and peel, remove any seeds or stringy flesh, and cut in cubes. Cover with water in a saucepan and a pinch of salt, cover, bring to a boil, and simmer, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until tender.

Puree pumpkin flesh in a food processor, blender, or food mill and return it to pan with cooking liquid.

Simmer 5 minutes, stirring often. Add milk and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

To make vegetable garnish, heat butter in a frying pan and add leeks, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat 3 to 4 minutes. Add water and continue cooking 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned.

Add lettuce and peas and cook just until lettuce wilts and peas are hot.

Just before serving, remove hot soup from heat and stir in butter. Ladle soup into bowls and top each with some of green vegetable mixture. Makes 4 servings.Creamy Pumpkin Soup With CroutonsInstead of the green vegetable garnish , prepare croutons by removing crusts from 2 slices of firm white bread. Cut bread in very small cubes. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a heavy frying pay until very hot.Add bread cubes and fry over medium high heat until golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve in a separate bowl.

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