Soup Stirs Warm Memories

Talking about soups evokes recollections as well as tastes

So you stuffed yourself silly during the holidays and now it's time to show a little restraint, hmm?

Grab a stockpot: There's a soup is in your future.

Universally, soup is associated with warmth, nourishment and above all, home and comfort. Food historian Margaret Visser refers to soup as a symbol of love in her book "The Rituals of Dinner."

Just the mere mention of the word spurs conversation: the minestrone grandmother made, the restaurant that served best clam chowder, books about chicken soup, and Aunt Marge's famous gumbo.

Authors Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer call this "soupography." Whenever the culinary team revealed they were writing a book about soup, people would talk about a soup experience in a voice as creamy as lobster bisque.

"Once they began reminiscing, there was no stopping them; soup led seamlessly to warm recollections of childhood and favorite family meals, memories of ethnic heritage and personal lifestyle," they write in "A Good Day for Soup."

While soupophiles wax nostalgic, the rest of us need only our senses - to smell the flavors and sip the rewards to appreciate the merits of a good soup.

Creole Gumbo

Served over boiled rice and packed full of tasty chicken, seafood, and vegetables, spicy gumbo is a feast in itself. For a fun, informal meal with friends, nothing could be easier.

1/4 cup canola oil

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

5 cups hot chicken stock

2 tablespoons fresh parsley

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 to 1-1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into chunks

1/2 pound okra, thinly sliced

1/2 pound medium-size raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, and chopped

1/4 teaspoon fil powder (a seasoning made from ground sassafras leaves that helps thicken the gumbo and gives it a unique woody flavor)

Boiled rice and chopped scallions for serving

Heat the oil in a large heavy pan, sprinkle in the flour, and cook over gentle heat, stirring constantly, for 15 to 20 minutes to make a rich, nut-brown roux. Add the onion, red pepper, and garlic and saut, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until soft.

Add the tomatoes and stir well to mix, then pour in the stock and add the herbs, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and add the chicken, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the okra and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until shrimp turn pink. Off the heat, add the fil powder and stir until the gumbo thickens slightly. Taste for seasoning. Serve over boiled rice, sprinkled with scallions.

Serves 4.

- From 'Sensational Soups,' by Jeni Wright (Doubleday, $19.95)

Creamy Corn and Red Pepper Chowder

3 tablespoons butter or oil

2 red bell peppers, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon ground cumin

4 cups corn kernels, fresh, or frozen and thawed

2 cups milk

2-1/2 cups chicken stock

6 small red new potatoes, diced

1/2 to 1 cup grated cheddar or jack cheese

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)

In a large pot, heat the butter over medium heat. Cook peppers and scallions until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in cumin. In a blender or food processor, process corn with milk until fairly smooth. Add pepper mixture and pulse briefly.

Transfer to pot, and mix in stock. Bring to a boil. Add potatoes, and let simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in cheese, simmer, stirring, for about another 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with cilantro, if desired

Serves 4 to 6.

- Adapted from 'A Good Day for Soup,' by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer (Chronicle Books, 1996)

Island Crab and Spinach Soup

Based on the Caribbean soup callaloo, this soup is rich with coconut milk and spicy with chili powder and hot pepper sauce. In the Caribbean it is served fiery hot, but you can add as little or as much spice as you like.

1/2 pound okra

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon canola oil

4 scallions, finely chopped

2 garlic gloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon hot chili powder

1-1/4 quarts hot fish or chicken stock

1 cup canned coconut milk

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 pound fresh spinach, thoroughly washed and shredded

10 ounces lump crabmeat

Tabasco sauce

Cayenne pepper for garnish

Thinly slice the okra. Heat the butter and oil in a large pan, add the scallions, and cook gently for 5 minutes until softened. Add the okra, garlic, and chili powder and stir for 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour in the stock and coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add thyme and salt and pepper to taste, then the shredded spinach. Cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the crabmeat and heat through for about 5 minutes. Taste; adjust seasonings and add Tabasco to taste. Serve at once, sprinkled with cayenne.

Serves 4.

- From 'Sensational Soups,' by Jeni Wright (Doubleday, $19.95)

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