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Be creative when making soup

(ran SP, NP editions)

If you don't see a batch of soup as a way to show your creative side, maybe it's time to think outside the pot.

Comfort food is a perfect palette for experimentation, according to cookbook author and dietitian Evelyn Tribole and chef Lee DuBose.

To get started, think beyond chicken noodle and split pea. Think different tastes and textures and contrast flavors such as sweet and sour or salty and sweet, said Tribole, author of More Healthy Homestyle Cooking (Rodale Press, $29.95 hardcover).

Then experiment. "Soups are a really great way to play," DuBose told a cooking class recently. "There's nothing set in stone. I encourage you to play around with all my recipes. . . . If you don't like cumin, don't use cumin. If you like ginger, put in ginger. If you want curry, add curry."

The prep express

Preparing soup can be fast and easy, and the finished product will still have a from-scratch taste with time-saving techniques.

One of the best time-savers is to lose your penchant for perfectionism, said DuBose, sous chef at Mr. Friendly's New Southern Cafe in Columbia, S.C. That means accepting that chopped vegetables don't have to be perfectly shaped or uniform in size. If you have to peel and seed something, he said, it's probably not worth it.

In fact, why chop vegetables at all? Tribole suggests you check out the produce and freezer section of the grocery store and pick up ready-cut vegetables. Convenience products such as canned chicken broth, tomatoes and evaporated milk can save time as well.

It also pays to invest in gadgets that make life easier, such as kitchen scissors or a mini-food processor for chopping herbs. A hand-held immersion blender works great for pureeing creamy soups, and it beats having to wash a food processor or blender.

The health express

Soup is not only a convenient meal, but also a healthful one. Tribole's book is filled with 200 recipe makeovers to cut fat and calories. Here are a few of her tips for cutting fat in soups:

+ For cream-based soups, substitute 1 percent milk, fat-free evaporated skim milk or a combination to replace heavy cream and half-and-half. For a creamier texture, add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch per each cup of liquid.

One percent milk has only a little more fat than fat-free, and for cooking it has more body and a more appealing color than fat-free.

+ In recipes that call for sauteing vegetables, eliminate butter or oil and use cooking spray instead.

+ Use lean cuts of meat and reduce amounts. Add starchy vegetables such as potatoes, yams, squash, corn and hominy to provide depth and texture. Lentils and beans give soups and stews added texture and fiber.

Stress-free comfort

If you're looking for a stress-reliever, soup is it. Soups and stews are casual, not fancy, DuBose said. They're warmth in the winter and a taste of comfort on a rainy day.

"I love making soup, because you can just throw it in a pot and relax while it simmers," Tribole said. "Some people are so wound up in their everyday lives, keeping their schedules and running from there to there that they eat really fast, too. Soup forces you to slow down."

Stock tips

If you make your own chicken stock, the flavor will be far superior to store-bought, our experts said, but they also agreed that most people don't make homemade stock anymore and needn't feel guilty about it.

"Some people feel that, if they can't do everything absolutely perfectly, they won't do it all," Tribole said.

DuBose said that, if you have time on a weekend, make a big pot of stock; it freezes wonderfully.

Tribole recommended freezing it in small portions. A popular method is to freeze it in ice cube trays, then release and store frozen cubes in freezer bags.

Red Pepper Bisque

4 red bell peppers, chopped

2 leeks, white part only, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 cups fat-free chicken broth

{ teaspoon salt

{ cup fat-free evaporated milk

1 cup 1 percent milk

\ cup low-fat sour cream, optional

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Coat a 4-quart pot with non-stick spray and warm over medium-high heat. Add the peppers, leeks and onion to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until tender.

Add the broth and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium; cover and simmer for 30 minutes to blend the flavors.

Puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender. Return to the pot. Stir in the evaporated milk and 1 percent milk and cook for 2 minutes or until heated through.

Ladle the soup into 6 bowls. Swirl 2 teaspoons of the sour cream into each bowl, if using. Sprinkle with the parsley.

Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 297 calories, 13 gm protein, 63 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 14 gm dietary fiber, 751 mg sodium.

Source: "More Healthy Homestyle Cooking" by Evelyn Tribole (Rodale Press, $29.95 hardcover).

Parmesan Corn Chowder

2 cups fat-free chicken broth

2 potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery rib, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

\ teaspoon ground black pepper

1-1{ cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

1 17-ounce can cream-style corn

2 cups 1 percent milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a 4-quart pot, combine the broth, potatoes, carrot, celery, onion and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Add corn kernels and cream-style corn to soup. Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the milk into the corn mixture.

In a cup, dissolve the cornstarch in the remaining 2 tablespoons milk. Add to the soup. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until bubbly. Cook for 1 minute longer. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Ladle into soup bowls and serve.

Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 229 calories, 14 gm protein, 34 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm total fat (3.3 gm saturated fat), 14 mg cholesterol, 4 gm dietary fiber, 570 mg sodium.

Source: adapted from "More Healthy Homestyle Cooking" by Evelyn Tribole (Rodale Press, $29.95 hardcover).

Savory New Potato and Wild Mushroom Soup

1 small onion, diced

3 ribs celery, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

16 ounces wild mushrooms of choice

3 pounds new potatoes

4 32-ounce containers low-sodium chicken broth

1 bunch parsley, chopped

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, saute the onions, celery and garlic in the butter until soft and aromatic. Add the mushrooms and cook for a couple of minutes.

Add the potatoes and chicken broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft, 20-30 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Five minutes before serving, add the parsley and cilantro; stir through.

Makes 16 servings. Per serving: 102 calories, 4 gm protein, 20 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm total fat (0.6 gm saturated fat), 2 mg cholesterol, 2 gm dietary fiber, 207 mg sodium.

Source: Lee DuBose, sous chef at Mr. Friendly's New Southern Cafe.

Easy Posole

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 4-ounce can chopped green chilis, undrained

2 15-ounce cans hominy, 1 can drained, 1 undrained

1 14.5-ounce can stewed or diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups reduced-sodium, low-fat chicken broth

} teaspoon ground cumin

{ teaspoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons chili powder

1{ cups cooked chopped chicken or pork

1 10-ounce can red enchilada sauce, optional

{ cup chopped fresh cilantro, optional

{ cup chopped fresh chives, optional

In a large, deep pot, heat olive oil and add onions, bell pepper and garlic. Saute until onions begin to wilt. Add green chilis and stir 1-2 minutes longer.

Add remaining ingredients except cilantro and chives. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Place the chives and cilantro in small bowls and serve alongside the soup as garnishes, if desired.

Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 249 calories, 19 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm total fat (1.3 gm saturated fat), 30 mg cholesterol, 7 gm dietary fiber, 600 mg sodium.

Source: adapted from "Southwestern Soups, Stews and Skillet Suppers" (Northland Publishing, $12.95 paperback) and "More Healthy Homestyle Cooking" (Rodale Press, $29.95 hardcover).

Lentil Stew

16 ounces lentils

5 cups water

8-12 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped

2-3 carrots, sliced

2-3 leeks, sliced

1 large onion, diced

1 large green bell pepper, diced

4-5 Roma tomatoes, diced (may substitute canned)

6 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons flour

1 10{-ounce can beef bouillon

\-{ cup cider vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large stock pot, bring lentils and water to boil. Reduce heat and let simmer while you prepare the vegetables.

In batches, saute the bacon over medium heat until crispy and the vegetables until softened but not mushy. By this time, the lentil cooking water should be mostly simmered away and the lentils should be soft.

Add the bacon and vegetables to the lentils and keep at a low simmer.

In the same skillet in which you sauteed the bacon and vegetables, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook until bubbly. Stir the bouillon and vinegar into the roux (flour-butter mixture) a little at a time.

Once the liquid is incorporated into the roux, stir it into the lentils and vegetables. Salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer 30 minutes.

Makes 16 servings. Per serving: 248 calories, 21 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm total fat (3.6 gm saturated fat), 16 mg cholesterol, 3 gm dietary fiber, 129 mg sodium.

Source: Lee DuBose, sous chef at Mr. Friendly's New Southern Cafe.