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Haute & homemade

It must be a sign of our hectic times, but homemade soup is nearly haute cuisine in many homes.

A chorus of "you made this?" is accompanied by admiration when a bowl of chunky chicken noodle soup, without a label, hits the dinner table. It wasn't always this way.

Homemade soup used to be a regular in the weekly dinner rotation. A resourceful cook could, and often had to, stretch meager ingredients or give leftovers new life in a pot that bubbled forever on the stove.

But somewhere on the way to the 21st century we fell in love with the convenience of canned soup and settled for comfort food at restaurants, whether dining in or taking out. Convenience is good, but so are the aromas from simmering soup when they waft through the house.

Making soup can be as simple as blending chopped vegetables for cold gazpacho or warming frozen tortellini in chicken broth with baby spinach leaves and fine shavings of Parmesan. It can be as time-consuming as gumbo, which requires many steps over the good part of a day.

No matter your time constraints or skill level, there is a soup recipe for you. Try one, then sit back and enjoy the applause.

January is National Soup Month, probably because a good portion of the country is shivering. Soup warms soul and body on a frigid day but is also satisfying in places such as Florida, where 65 degrees is chilly.

"The great attraction to soup is that it's gorgeous with its different textures and flavors," says Patricia Solley, author of An Exaltation of Soups (Three Rivers Press, 2004; $16). "I think it's extraordinary."

You might wonder what the chief of online print media for the FBI knows about soup, but then you haven't found Solley's Web site, soupsong.com. Since 1997, Solley has shared what she's learned with a world hungry for, well, soup.

Goya, Picasso, Van Gogh and, of course, Warhol have paintings that feature soup. Jimmy Buffett sings I Play for Gumbo. Shakespeare used soup to make a point. John Belushi's last meal was lentil soup. And the Chicken Soup for the Soul series exploits our fuzzy feelings for the curative power of soup while making author Jack Canfield a rich man. And then there's the infamous Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame.

The root of Solley's obsession is a mystery, even to her.

"It's inexplicable, really," she says by phone from her Washington office. "I think what really clicked about soup, unlike desserts, is that it cuts across all cultures."

There are dozens of soup cookbooks on the market, including Soup for Every Body by Joanna Preuss (Lyons Press, $22.95), published at the same time as Exaltation. Exaltation stakes its claim as a history book nearly as much as cookbook. Solley imagines it as a research aid for food historians and anthropologists. It does have a serious tone about it, and the absence of photos might put some people off. It's a must, though, for soup lovers.

During the time that Solley, 57, has maintained her Web site, she has come across many soups that perform a function other than nourishment. She found soups that encourage weight loss, celebrate holidays and woo lovers. Others, such as Puerto Rican tripe soup, are aimed at chasing off hangovers.

After a hectic holiday season, I felt that perhaps I had not paid enough attention to my husband. Did Solley have a soup of amends?

Not exactly, but in the "To Celebrate Marriage" chapter, I found Moroccan Harira, a melange of lamb, lentils, rice and garbanzo beans that sounded delicious. Cinnamon and lemon were predominant.

Harira is typically served to break the fast of Ramadan, but it's also a dish given to newlyweds to restore strength after an arduous honeymoon. We're not newlyweds and long past our honeymoon, but we can always use strength.

Like many soups, harira is best the next day, when the ingredients have melded and released their full flavor. Solley lived two years in Morocco in the early 1980s, and harira is a favorite.

"It's like Proust's Madeleines to me," she says.

French writer Marcel Proust once described how biting into a delicate Madeleine cookie transported him to the pleasures of childhood. A spoonful of harira returns Solley to what was to her a golden time.

"But for pure lust, I like gazpacho," Solley says. "I make pitchers of it in the summer and keep it in the fridge."

Along with harira, I served a quick bread, heavy with cheese. Cubes of cheese _ soft asiago is suggested, but I used Dubliner cheddar _ are mixed into the thick batter and melt as the loaf bakes. Grated Parmesan is layered in the bottom of the pan and then sprinkled on the top of the dough for a double-cheese experience.

Tangy, crispy, chewy, cheesy. If that didn't make up for any holiday snub, what would?

We liked the harira; the 9-year-old not so much. He, like most children, is blessed with unending energy and didn't need a boost, it seemed.

In our family, though, he is the soup connoisseur. Several summers ago, on a trip West, he ate clam chowder four consecutive days and proclaimed the offering from a diner in Pacific Grove, Calif., the best. He still talks about that silky soup, 2{ years later.

Similarly, on a vacation through Florida's Panhandle last year, he ordered gumbo at five restaurants and gave No. 1 billing to the version served at the Red Bar in Grayton Beach. (My gumbo ranks No. 2.)

The best soup I make, my son says, is Sara Moulton's Spanish-Style White Bean, Kale and Chorizo Soup, a spicy melange similar to gallego, which is commonly served in Tampa's Spanish and Cuban restaurants. The hallmarks of gallego, which has roots in the Galicia region of Spain, are garbanzo beans, spicy sausage, potatoes and greens.

Moulton's version has no potatoes, but it does impart deep flavor from the long cooking of dried great northern beans and other ingredients.

My experiments with quick-cooking soups have resulted in adequate taste, but they do not measure up to those that have been allowed to develop. I never hanker for cold soups, of which many, especially fruit versions, can be made quickly.

Like Solley, I like that soup cannot be eaten in a rush, though Campbell's microwaveable Soup at Hand makes it more portable.

"Soup is communal; you can't eat and run," Solley says. "You have to sit down at a table with a bowl and spoon and other people."

And then wait for the inevitable oohs and aahs.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or krietasptimes.com.

SOUP IN THE NEWS

Check out soupsong.com to find recent mentions of soup in the news, plus quotes, jokes, legends and soups in notable art. There are recipes, too.

Spanish Style White Bean, Kale and Chorizo Soup

{ pound dried white beans, such as Great Northern, rinsed and picked over

8{ cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

1 bay leaf, preferably Turkish

Kosher salt to taste

Pinch of saffron threads

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 Spanish chorizo sausages, about } pound, cut into {-inch dice

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 large red bell pepper, finely diced

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 small bunch kale, about } pound, tough stems removed, washed well and coarsely chopped

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sherry vinegar to taste

Place beans in a large pot or soup kettle. Pour in 2 quarts of the stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and add bay leaf and pinch of salt. Cook partially covered, stirring often and adjusting heat to keep a slow, steady simmer, until beans are tender, about 2 hours. Remove and discard bay leaf.

Soak saffron in remaining { cup chicken stock.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chorizo and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate. Add onion, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Stir in red pepper and paprika. Cook for 2 minutes longer; then transfer contents of skillet to the bean pot. Stir in saffron with the soaking liquid, the chorizo and the kale. Bring back to a simmer and cook just until the kale is wilted, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir in vinegar and serve hot in warmed soup bowls.

Serves 6.

Source: "Sara Moulton Cooks at Home" by Sara Moulton (Broadway Books, $29.95).

Wedding Lamb Soup With Rice and Lentils

1{ cups dried chickpeas, or 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound boneless lamb, cubed into bite-size pieces

2 medium onions, chopped

1 large red pepper, seeded and chopped (hot or sweet, as you prefer)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

{ cup chopped parsley

2 pounds ripe or canned tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved

1 cup red lentils, washed and picked through for stones

10 cups (2\ quarts) water

{ cup rice

Salt to taste

Cinnamon and lemon slices, for garnish

To prepare: The night before, soak the dried chickpeas overnight in lots of water. The next morning, drain and husk the chickpeas by rubbing them between your palms.

Prep the remaining ingredients as directed in the recipe list.

To cook: Heat the oil over low heat in a large soup pot. Add lamb, onions, red pepper, cinnamon, black pepper, { cup of the cilantro and the parsley. Cook, stirring, over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.

Add tomatoes, turn heat to medium and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.

Stir in the lentils, chickpeas (unless you're using canned chickpeas), reserved juice from the tomatoes and the water.

Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 1{ hours.

Add rice and cook another 30 minutes. If you're using canned chickpeas, add them now.

Stir in the remaining { cup of cilantro and the salt. Let simmer for another 5 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: "An Exaltation of Soups" by Patricia Solley (Three Rivers Press, $16).

Saffroned Tomato-Fennel Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and diced; reserve the fronds for garnish

1 garlic clove, minced

\ cup dry white wine

{ to 1 teaspoon saffron threads, heated in a large metal spoon over low heat to dry, then ground to a powder and steeped in 1 tablespoon boiling water until they completely give up their color and flavor

\ cup fresh basil leaves, finely shredded

4 cups peeled and finely chopped tomatoes, with their juice (a 2-pound can of tomatoes is fine)

1 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

\ to { cup shredded basil and fennel fronds, for garnish

To prepare: Prep the ingredients as directed in the recipe list.

To cook: In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add onion, fennel dice and garlic. Cover and sweat for about 10 minutes.

Pour in wine and steeped saffron. Stir in basil. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat to low and simmer 1 to 2 minutes.

Add tomatoes with their juice and the water. Return to a boil over high heat; then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes, partially covered.

To serve: Add salt and pepper. Stir in additional basil and reserved fennel fronds. Ladle soup into bowls and have at it.

Serves 2.

Source: "An Exaltation of Soups" by Patricia Solley (Three Rivers Press, $16).

Quick Cheese Bread

3 ounces Parmesan cheese, shredded on large holes of box grater (about 1 cup)

3 cups (15 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

\ teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon salt

[ teaspoon ground black pepper

4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, cut into {-inch cubes, or mild Asiago, crumbled into \- to {-inch pieces (about 1 cup) (See note)

1\ cups whole milk

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg, beaten lightly

} cup sour cream

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle { cup of the Parmesan evenly over the bottom.

In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, cayenne, salt and pepper to combine. Using a rubber spatula, mix in the Cheddar or Asiago, breaking up clumps. In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, melted butter, egg and sour cream. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined (the batter will be heavy and thick). Do not overmix. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan; level surface with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle remaining { cup Parmesan evenly over the surface.

Bake until deep golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack 5 minutes. Invert the loaf onto the rack, turn right-side up and continue to cool until just warm, about 45 minutes. Cut into slices and serve.

Note: If using Asiago, choose a mild supermarket cheese that yields to pressure when pressed. Aged Asiago that is as firm as Parmesan is too sharp and piquant for this bread. If, when testing the bread for doneness, the toothpick comes out with what looks like uncooked batter clinging to it, try again in a different _ but still central _ spot. If the toothpick hits a pocket of cheese, it may give a false indication.

Source: "America's Test Kitchen Live!" by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine (America's Test Kitchen, $29.95).

Tortellini Soup

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for topping

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

2 large cloves garlic, minced

4 ounces fresh kale or other leafy greens, coarse ribs removed and thinly shredded

7 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 9-ounce package frozen basil-Parmesan tortellini or other flavors (including vegetarian fillings)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Basil-Parmesan Topping:

} cup freshly grated imported Parmesan cheese

\ cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat.

When hot, add onion and garlic, and saute until limp, } minutes. Add kale and stock, and bring the liquid to a boil.

Stir in tortellini, reduce heat and gently boil until tortellini are tender, about 8 minutes.

Don't overcook.

Meanwhile, prepare the Basil-Parmesan topping. Blend the Parmesan, basil and pepper in a small bowl.

Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle into large soup bowls, drizzle on olive oil, generously sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of the topping, and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: "Soup for Every Body" by Joanna Pruess (The Lyons Press, $22.95).

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