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No sense hunching over a bowl solo. Start with a desire for good company, add a dash of fun and you have community soup night.

Pumpkins on porches, lower humidity and earlier sunsets can mean only one thing - it's fall. For many of us, it's also time to put soup back on the menu, even if daytime highs still suggest summer.

Soup can be delicious and nutritious when filled with fiber-rich vegetables, beans and whole grains, with no fat or just a little. Research even suggests soup may help with weight control by filling you up before a meal so you eat less of the higher-calorie offerings.

Soup can be quick and easy to fix and relatively inexpensive when made with leftovers in the fridge, canned goods from the pantry and a carton of stock. Add a few sprigs of herbs from your patio pots and you're really cooking.

But soup can also be healing in ways you may not have imagined. Maggie Stuckey explains how in her new book, Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup (Storey Publishing). "I really think soup is magical," said Stuckey, who lives in Portland, Ore., and spoke with the Times recently by phone.

Stuckey saw her first soup night a few years ago in her brother's northeast Oregon community. On the appointed night and hour, doors opened up and down the street and people came out in unison, each with a bowl in one hand and a spoon in a pocket. They gathered in the host's house, where two pots of soup bubbled - one vegetarian, one not. They filled their bowls, found a seat and reconnected with friends and warmly greeted newcomers.

The idea started with a single mom who wanted her kids to grow up where people knew one another and didn't have to be afraid in their own neighborhood. Now it's a monthly gathering, with hosting duties rotating among households. Guests also might tote along a loaf of bread, a birthday cake to share, or a bottle of vino and glasses.

Without soup night, Stuckey said, these folks probably wouldn't have crossed paths. But now people of all backgrounds and ages are friends. They watch out for one another and pitch in to help whenever it's needed.

"One of the dads said the most beautiful thing to me," Stuckey remembers. "He said, 'Our soup night is really for the kids, and they don't even know it yet. What they're seeing is adults working together cooperatively, and that's a wonderful thing to grow up with.'"

Equally important are the social connections the soup eaters make, especially those who otherwise might be isolated. Stuckey looked into the scientific research and learned that people who have few relationships with others are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and dementia. "Isolation makes you sick," she said. "It can be worse for you than smoking and obesity. It can set you up for an early death."

So sharing a pot of soup can be both spiritually and physically therapeutic.

If starting your own community soup night sounds appealing, Stuckey's book is a veritable blueprint, with recipes for soups (plus salads and a few desserts) as well as stories and tips from the 30 other groups she found across the country that hold similar gatherings.

Here are some recipes to help you get started. Remember, one of the great things about soup is that it's very forgiving. If you don't like a particular ingredient, just leave it out or substitute whatever you prefer. The point of soup night is fun and fellowship - and the chef, too, ought to enjoy everything about it.

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Author Maggie Stuckey likes this low-fat soup because it takes advantage of a classic fall vegetable and it's delicious either hot or cold.

8 leeks, trimmed and finely chopped, white part only

2 medium onions, finely chopped, about 1 cup

1 head cauliflower, finely chopped, about 6 cups

4 bay leaves

4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

2-2/3 cups nonfat milk, heated

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Handful of chopped fresh chives or 1/4 cup chopped pistachios, for garnish

Combine the leaks, onions, cauliflower, bay leaves and chicken broth in a large soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook, covered, until the cauliflower is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaves.

Add the hot milk, salt and pepper and transfer soup to a blender (careful, it's hot!) and puree until smooth, then return to the pot. Or use an immersion blender and puree the soup right in the pot.

Serve hot with a sprinkling of chives or pistachios.

Serves 6.

Nutritional information per serving (with chives, not pistachios, which add 27 calories per serving): 130 calories, 1g fat (0 saturated), 2.2mg cholesterol, 719mg sodium, 24g carbohydrates, 4.8g fiber, 7.9g protein.

Source: Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup by Maggie Stuckey (Storey Publishing)

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File this one away for a post-Thanksgiving supper and substitute leftover turkey for the chicken. Just add the turkey later since it's already cooked. If you're short on time, use a frozen mix of chopped onion and bell peppers. Just eyeball the amounts or figure a total of 3 cups of the frozen mixture (it's much less than it sounds once defrosted).

2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves cut into bite-sized pieces

2 medium onions, chopped

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

6 cups chicken broth

2 (16-ounce) cans pumpkin puree

1 cup frozen corn

2/3 cup uncooked rice

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the chicken, onions, bell peppers and garlic. Saute until the chicken is no longer pink, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add the broth, pumpkin, corn, rice, basil, salt and pepper. Stir well and bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer covered, until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Serves 6-8.

Nutritional information per serving: 216 calories, 5.3g fat (2.7 saturated), 33.8mg cholesterol, 725mg sodium, 25.4g carbohydrates, 4.1g fiber, 15.8g protein.

Source: Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup

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Author Maggie Stuckey's recipe is rich and indulgent, with lots of butter, cream and cheese. If you'd rather keep it lighter, we've added alternatives. Also, if you have trouble peeling and dicing hard, raw squash, try roasting it first in the oven, then scooping the soft flesh out of the skin and adding it to the saute mixture. To roast squash, cut in half, remove seeds, place cut side down on a parchment-lined baking tray with sides. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 25 minutes or until you can easily pierce the flesh all the way through with a sharp knife. Or microwave on high, checking every 5 minutes.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter (Times alternative: Use only 2)

1 cup sliced yellow onion

2 cups peeled and diced acorn squash

2 cups peeled and diced butternut squash

Sea salt

Freshly ground white pepper

5 cups chicken broth

1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half (Times alternative: Use fat-free half-and-half)

3 sprigs fresh thyme

3 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated, about 3/4 cup (Times alternative: Skip or reduce cheese, or try fat-free cheddar)

Optional seasonings: ground nutmeg, honey, cayenne, minced fresh ginger

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the acorn and butternut squash and saute until soft, about 10 minutes.

Season the squash mixture with salt and pepper, add the broth and bring to a simmer. Cook until the squash is tender, about 30 minutes.

Transfer the soup to a blender and puree until smooth. For extra-satiny smoothness, pass the soup through a fine sieve after it's pureed.

Return the soup to the pot and add the cream or half-and-half and (if you're using them) the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Simmer.

Wrap the thyme in a piece of cheesecloth and tie with string to make a little bundle. Add it to the simmering soup and let it infuse for 10 minutes, then remove. (Or if you like to see the herbs in your soup, skip the cheesecloth and just remove the stems.)

Add the cheese, and mix gently until incorporated. Add optional seasonings as desired and serve hot.

Serves 6-8.

Nutritional information (calculated for 8 servings, using 2 tablespoons butter, fat-free cheese and fat-free half-and-half): 107 calories, 4g fat (2.1 saturated), 11mg cholesterol, 753mg sodium, 13g carbohydrates, 1.7g fiber, 5.6g protein.

Source: Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup

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By Maggie Stuckey

(Storey Publishing, 304 pages, $20)