Hearty Soups to Chase Away Winter Chills

When I was a child growing up in San Diego, hot soup wasn't high on my list of favorite meals.

Now that I live in Colorado, where the snow creeps under my very doors, a bowl of hot soup makes the perfect meal.

In general, soups fall into two categories: clear or thick. While clear soups can certainly be tasty, the substance and richness of thick soups make them a savory winter meal.

There are three basic methods that give body to soup: the use of a thickening agent such as flour, the inherent quality of starchy ingredients, or the pure of the cooked ingredients.

Flour can be mixed with cold water or stock before being added to soup, but it is more commonly combined with butter. A cooked flour-butter mixture is called a roux. The degree of thickness achieved from using water or butter with the flour is almost identical, but the addition of butter lends a richer, creamier texture and flavor to the soup.

Cornstarch can also be used as a thickening agent, but the addition of too much can lead to a rubbery texture.

Thickness can also be added to soup by using starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, which break down as they cook. The smaller pieces add body to the soup.

Pureing the ingredients is the simplest way to create a thick, hearty soup. The vegetables should be cooked until they are tender and can be mashed easily. The liquid should then be strained and the vegetables pured in the pot with a hand-held mixer (or put through a food processor or blender). Enough of the liquid should be added back into the pure to make a smooth texture.

The soups below are made using each of the three methods of thickening.

The spinach soup actually combines a roux with pured vegetables. This is a beautiful, mild, elegant soup which will please the palate. I've served it to honored company, but it is also a favorite of my young children.

Buy fresh spinach and wash it thoroughly. I once bought a bunch of spinach, washed it twice by hand, spun it in a salad spinner, chopped it, mixed it with ricotta cheese, and a ladybug crawled out of the bowl. Even packaged spinach that has been washed should be washed again in your sink.

The best method is to fill your sink about half full of water and add the greens. Swish them around and then let stand several minutes. The dirt and bugs will fall to the bottom. The spinach can then be removed and left to dry on a clean dish towel.

Fresh basil is a must for this soup. The dried basil in your spice rack bears little resemblance to the real thing. Chopping fresh basil leaves will fill your kitchen with the heady fragrance of summers past. Fortunately, even in the winter months, basil can usually be found in the produce section of most supermarkets.

I once went to a dinner party where a corn chowder was served that left me greatly underwhelmed, to put it nicely. Starchy vegetables, especially with the addition of cream, can deaden soup to the point of tastelessness. Note, by the way, that creamy soups don't have to contain cream; in recipes that call for it, don't hesitate to make a less fattening choice. Properly prepared, a chowder can be both filling and delicious. The cheese in the corn chowder recipe gives the pizazz to this wonderful, hearty soup.

Served with a salad of fresh greens and crusty bread, it is a satisfying winter meal.

Winter squash comes in an amazing variety of shapes and flavors. The most popular is probably the butternut, which is smooth, golden, and shaped somewhat like a bowling pin. In the curried-butternut recipe, the squash is cooked and pured to a creamy texture. Curry spices are then added to impart flavor and depth. Curry is actually a combination of many spices. While commercially prepared curry powder will work in a pinch, I've found it much more interesting and tasty to combine my own spices.

If you have the spices available, you'll find it worthwhile. This golden-orange soup may be garnished with a variety of toppings that enhance the flavor.

Curried Butternut And Corn Soup

If you don't have all the spices listed here, use a tablespoon or so of prepared curry powder.

4 cups water or chicken stock

1 3-pound butternut squash, pealed and cut into cubes

2 potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups chopped onion

3 tablespoons butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2-1/2 cups frozen corn

1 cup orange juice

Diced avocado, pumpkin seeds, blue tortilla chips, optional

Bring water, squash, potatoes and salt to a boil. (Make sure liquid covers vegetables.) Reduce to simmer, cover, and cook 20 to 25 minutes until squash is soft.

Cool slightly. Pure in batches.

In a separate pan, saute onion, garlic, and spices in the butter. Scrape to keep spices from sticking. When the onion is soft, add the corn and heat.

Add this mixture to the pured squash; stir in orange juice.

Serve with blue tortilla chips; top soup with diced avocado and/or pumpkin seeds if you wish.

Serves 6.

Corn and Cheese Chowder

1 large potato, peeled and diced

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons butter

1 onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons flour

1-1/2 cups milk

2-1/2 cups frozen corn

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1-1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar or jalapeo cheese

Cook the potato in three cups of water, along with the bay leaf, sage, cumin, and salt until potato is tender.

Remove bay leaf.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add onion and saut for about 10 minutes. Whisk in the flour and mix well.

Add the milk, stirring with a whisk.

Pour this sauce into the potatoes and their water. Add the corn and parsley and let the soup simmer gently for about 10 minutes.

Stir in the grated cheese.

Heat until cheese is thoroughly melted.

Serves 4.

Spinach-Basil Soup

(Adapted from 'The Moosewood Cookbook' by Mollie Katzen)

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium potato, peeled and chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 pound fresh spinach leaves

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves

1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup butter

2 cups milk

Salt and pepper, to taste

Grated Parmesan cheese, for topping.

Put the carrot, onion, potato, and garlic into a saucepan. Add just enough water to cover. Cook until tender, approximately 15 minutes. Pure.

Steam the spinach and fresh basil in one cup of water until wilted, about 5 minutes. Puree.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Whisk the flour into the butter. Stir in the milk and cook over very low heat, stirring until thickened. Add the spinach pure, and salt and pepper. Add the first pure and stir until well blended and heated through. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4 to 6.

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