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Spoon-Fed meals

Posted Dec 03 2011 5:16pm
Although soup and soup-like stews need no excuse to be made anytime during the year, the early evenings and cold temperatures of very late fall make warm hearty soups especially appealing. Soup from Thanksgiving turkey bones and some of the leftover side dishes is usually the first fall soup recipe to appear in newspaper food columns. One writer even suggested putting the turkey carcass in a big pot to start to simmer while the Thanksgiving meal was still be eaten. Although that seemed too much effort—one should enjoy the a meal without simultaneously dealing with leftovers—it did point up the ease with which a pot of water can be turned into a satisfying meal, if something with flavor cooks in it long enough.
We tend to marginalize soup. It is usually offered as a first course and sometimes is regarded as a nuisance food, to be eaten quickly so that the main course can be consumed. In restaurants diners often reject soup in favor of another appetizer such as a salad. “I hate ordering soup when I go out to eat,” a friend told me. “I am always afraid I will slurp it noisily or it will dribble down my chin. And then it fills me up too quickly so I don’t enjoy the rest of my meal.”
But soup takes on another role when it becomes half of a lunch, paired with half a sandwich. The combination of hot soup and sandwich is somehow more satisfying than a sandwich alone, perhaps it is because it is something our mothers would give us for lunch on a cold rainy day (tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich was traditional in my neighborhood). When served as the main course for dinner, soup is eaten slowly, with time for conversation, or can be taken into another room to be eaten while checking check e-mail or starting on homework. Sometimes soups provoke interest into the source of the ingredients, as the spoon detects something that may have come from a previous meal. When I was in college, we were served something we called “garbage soup” toward the end of the week. There was no evidence to support the notion that the kitchen staff recycled its leftovers in this dish. Nonetheless, we used to fish around to see if we could identify the leavings of a previous meal in the mix.
Soup does not have to be the repository of whatever seems to be languishing in the refrigerator, although most soup recipes will forgive you if you do want to throw in a soft tomato, noodles from yesterday’s supper and the celery stalks hidden at the bottom of your vegetable bin. The neat thing about soup is that it is easy to make, inexpensive and the variations are almost endless.
The best soups for this time of year are those which can function as a main course, eaten with fresh crusty bread and followed by a baked apple or pear. Soup works well when everyone in the family eats at a different time: The toddler who eats at five and the spouse who doesn’t get home from work until eight can enjoy the same meal. Most soups withstand constant reheating or simmering and work well in a “fix your own supper when you get home” type of kitchen.
Soups also do not require much preparation time, although admittedly some should cook for at least 30 minutes, if not longer, so that the flavors of all the ingredients become acquainted with each other. Although most soup recipes list their ingredients with precise measurements, in actuality the measurements are relative. It makes little difference if you add a half or three-quarters of an onion or one or two garlic cloves. If the soup is too thick because you added too many black beans or potatoes, then add water to thin it out. Soup too thin? Use a hand-held immersion blender or a food processor to purée some of the ingredients and add them back. The soup will be thickened instantly. The only measurements that should be followed are those for salt, pepper and the seasonings. However, do not add a lot of additional spices or herbs, like a quarter of a cup of cumin or red pepper flakes if the recipe calls for a quarter of a teaspoon. That type of mistake is hard to undo.
The proliferation of boxed broths and vegetable soups such as cream of tomato, cream of squash and black bean are useful as a base for whatever other ingredients you want to add. Of course you can heat and eat these soups from the box, but they tend to be somewhat uninteresting and not substantial enough for a main course. Heating up boxed cream (there is no cream) of squash soup? Add chopped apples and cranberries or even that dollop of cranberry sauce still in the refrigerator. Starting with a black bean soup? Add lentils or a can of black beans, red bell peppers, garlic, lime juice, cumin, cilantro and maybe even a splash of sherry and simmer. Chicken broth can embrace a diversity of ingredients from leftover chicken (or turkey), any vegetable in the refrigerator, leftover rice, pasta or potatoes and the juice from that half a lemon you forgot you have. Don’t save chicken soup with these add-ons for the flu. It is a welcome soup when you are healthy.
Chowders are a category of soup we tend to associate with summer eating, especially near the ocean as in clam or fish chowder, but they work well in a kitchen far away from seagulls and clam shacks. Clam or fish broth is also available in cans or boxes and can be transformed into something tasting like summer vacation by the addition of celery, onions, new potatoes (so you don’t have to peel them), fish chunks or minced clams and milk, Other than chopping the ingredients or using a food processor to do this task, and tasting the soup every so often to make sure it is seasoned, there is little to do before putting it on the table. If you can find large oyster crackers to crumble in the soup, the dish will be complete. Chowders are an easy way of getting enough calcium, and if lactose intolerance prevents you from drinking milk, use lactose–free milk when making the soup. Corn chowders are even easier to make, especially if you use frozen corn kernels and there are no food police to prevent you from making fish-corn chowder.
Finally, don’t look at a recipe for soup and despair because you have only half of the ingredients listed. Make substitutions from what you have in your own kitchen. It is very hard to fail unless you burn the soup—and that is really hard to do.

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