by Ann M. Colford

Since the earliest days of human history, soup has been what's for supper. The words "soup," "sop," "sup" and "supper" all share the same root and come from the very beginning of Indo-European languages. As soon as people had fire and a container for heating water, soup was born.

Soup is ancient and basic. It warms the soul as it nourishes the body. Perhaps that's why every culinary tradition has soup as part of its repertoire. Eating soup reconnects us with our earliest ancestors and links us with people around the world.

In the folk tale "Stone Soup," a stranger brings a village together through the simple proposition to make soup from a stone, coaxing people out of their homes and overcoming their fear of shortage and the unknown. The villagers bring forth their unassuming contributions - an onion, a carrot, a shred of meat - and discover that together, their gifts will feed everyone.

As a metaphor for community, soup lies somewhere between the melting pot and the tossed salad: Each ingredient contributes to the flavor of the broth and is irreversibly changed by being part of the soup, while at the same time maintaining an individual identity. Moreover, while some ingredients stand out in the finished product, others - garlic, wine, spices - influence the whole without drawing attention to themselves as individuals. They may not be as visible as the broccoli, for instance, but without them the flavor would be much more bland.

Not only does soup illustrate community, but it can also help put the idea of community into action. As a satisfying food made from odds and ends, soup is a way to eat low on the food chain. For this reason, it's a mainstay of charity meals and those who choose to demonstrate solidarity with the less fortunate, including religious communities. Benedictine monasteries are justly famous for their hospitality, where soup is an important part of the tradition. With the soup pot always on, very little is wasted in the kitchen.

Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila Latourrette lives in a Benedictine monastery in the northeastern United States and has written two wonderful cookbooks drawn from his experiences in the monastery kitchen. His minestrone soup, adapted from the Mediterranean tradition, relies on beans for protein, making it a delicious choice for vegetarians.

Minestrone di Verdura

2/3 cup olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, sliced

2 celery stalks, sliced

1 15-oz can cooked cannellini beans

1 15-oz can peeled tomatoes

10 cups water

2 potatoes, peeled and diced

small radicchio, chopped

1 cup white wine

1 bay leaf

chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Saut & eacute; onion, carrots and celery in olive oil in a soup pot for five minutes. Add the beans and tomatoes and simmer for two minutes. Add water, potatoes, radicchio, wine and bay leaf, parsley, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently for one hour. Turn off heat and let stand 15 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Serves 8 to 10.

(From Twelve Months of Monastery Soups by Brother Victor-Antoine D'Avila-Latourrette.)

Combining the influences of multiple culinary traditions is part of the fun when making new soups. This Black Bean Mushroom Chili marries the meatiness of mushrooms with the richness of black beans while blending Mexican flavors with hints of India and the Middle East.

Black Bean Mushroom Chili

1 15-oz can black beans

1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

4 tsps black mustard seeds

2 tsps chili powder

1/2 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp ground cardamom

1 med onion, chopped

1-1/2 cups mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

3-4 tomatillos, husked and chopped

4 tsps water

2 cups vegetable broth

1/4 cup tomato paste

1-2 tsps jalapeno pepper, chopped

1 tsp ketchup

1 tsp vinegar

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Combine oil, mustard seeds, chili powder, cumin seeds and cardamom in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Place over medium-high heat until the spices sizzle, about 30 seconds. Add onions, mushrooms, tomatillos and 4 teaspoons water. Reduce heat, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are juicy, 5 to 7 minutes. Uncover and stir often until the juices evaporate and vegetables are lightly browned, another 10 minutes. Add beans, broth, tomato paste, peppers, ketchup and vinegar; mix well. Cover and simmer gently over low heat about 3 hours.

To serve, ladle the chili into bowls and garnish with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of cilantro. Makes about 4 servings.

(Adapted from Eating Well magazine, Winter 2004 issue)

Unlike our forebears, most of us don't have the time or inclination to spend hours making homemade stock or soaking dried beans overnight. Fortunately, grocery shelves abound with high-quality convenience ingredients, like canned beans and boxed or canned broth. With these staples on hand, it's easy to throw together a soup quickly.

After making the chili above, I had lots of leftover onions and mushrooms - delicate oyster mushrooms, flavorful shiitakes and meaty criminis - so I decided to come up with a soup to bring out the best in them. With a one-quart box of beef broth and a bottle of cream sherry from the cupboard, I had my inspiration. Here's the recipe that resulted.

Onion Mushroom Soup

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1 shallot, thinly sliced

2-3 cups mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

1 tsp butter

1/2 cup sherry

4 cups beef broth

1 cup water

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and shallots; saut & eacute; for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often. Add the mushrooms and continue to saut & eacute; until onions are transparent and mushrooms are soft. Add the butter and let it melt into the vegetables. Then pour in the sherry and let it bubble up for about a minute. Add the broth and water; turn heat to medium-high and cover the pot until the soup bubbles. Reduce heat and simmer gently for at least an hour partially covered.

Serve this soup as is with a salad and crusty bread for a light meal, or top with bread and melted cheese - like French onion soup - for a heartier dish.

Blending the flavors of the Mediterranean with the spices of the East, Moroccan cuisine is both familiar and exotic. Familiar ingredients like onions, carrots and chicken reveal new dimensions when paired with spices like cumin and cinnamon. This Moroccan-inspired Chicken Couscous Soup actually began with homemade stock that's been sitting in the freezer since the holidays. From there, it's pure cross-cultural fun.

If a late-winter head cold has you down, this soup is a marvelous restorative. Not only do you get the comfort-food sensibilities of chicken soup, but you also get the complex blend of flavors in the spices.

Chicken Couscous Soup

8 cups chicken stock

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1-inch piece ginger root, minced

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 large onion, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 large carrots, chopped

1 medium sweet potato, chopped

1 15-oz can whole or diced tomatoes

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 cup semolina couscous

2 cups boiling water

Pour stock into a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, and cayenne, and bring to a boil. Add onion, celery, carrots, sweet potato, tomatoes and raisins; return soup to boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer partially covered for at least an hour.

Meanwhile, put dry semolina couscous in a heat-proof bowl. Add 2 cups hot water, cover the bowl and let rest until the couscous is soft.

For each serving, place a large spoonful of couscous in the bottom of a soup bowl and ladle the soup over it. Stir gently and serve.

A Word About Chowder -- I grew up in New England, where good chowder is more than a tradition; it's a birthright. Like many New Englanders, I take my chowder seriously. I spent years sampling dozens of recipes, looking for just the right combination of consistency, texture and mouth-watering flavors. Stumbling on a favorite about 15 years ago, I've never looked back -- although I have tweaked the original just a tad over that time.

The best chowder (i.e., mine) is rich and creamy and chock-full of fish and potatoes. Seasoning is simple - garlic is about as exotic as it gets. The starch from the potatoes lends a slight thickness to the cream. Thickening the broth with flour is probably the most egregious mistake made in the commercial preparation of chowder. Most restaurant chowders are way too thick and pasty for my taste, and they can't compare in flavor with the homemade variety.

Perhaps most important, chowder is always white. I know, I know, there's a lovely tomato-based clam or seafood soup that's served in a large city southwest of New England. Some people call it chowder. It's a delicious concoction, resembling the best cioppino. But it's not chowder, according to Joan Harlow, the long-time proprietor of the Loaf and Ladle restaurant in Exeter, N.H. "Call me rigid, stubborn, provincial," she writes in the restaurant's cookbook. "Chowder is always white, with potatoes, onions and an identifiable guest of honor." I have taken on her declaration as my own.

The "guest of honor" in a chowder may be any food that can hold its identity in the mix. The most common homemade varieties from my childhood were fish chowder and corn chowder, always ladled out hot and steaming and topped with a pat of butter, a sprinkle of black pepper, and a liberal helping of common crackers or their smaller cousins, oyster crackers. When I want to give my friends here a little touch of New England - or if I'm feeling particularly homesick - I throw together a chowder and put on my favorite CD of sea shanties. All that's missing is the sound of foghorns moaning in the harbor.

Publication date: 02/12/04

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