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Treat yourself to a rich and fragrant soup or chowder

Cooking

This everyday busy time of year, this kind of weather — there's no need to make a case for eating soup. Homemade soup, that is. Rich and fragrant, filled with all the goodies you like to use and which, ostensibly, your family likes to eat. And not replete with ingredients you'd rather not include, e.g. sodium, preservatives, etc.

The only drawback to cooking up a big pot of slurpy comfort is time. We tend to think of soup as long-cooking concoctions that we simply don't have time to wait for on a week night and we're too busy running around to stay home for on a weekend.

Our exercise du jour, then, is to suggest some healthful, interesting pots o' goodness that don't take long to fix and which can be simmering while you fix side salads or sandwiches to go with. Or – and here's a lovely thought – while you put your feet up for a few minutes to recharge for the "family time" ahead.

We begin …

Classic clam chowder

No, you don't need to scrub and shuck your own clams for this traditional dish, just buy these favored bi-valves in cans. Whole milk is the secret to a "creamy" result. Oyster crackers or cheese crackers make a fine garnish. Add a salad or a grilled cheese sandwich. Comfort indeed.

4 slices lean bacon, chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 rib of celery, finely chopped

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 (10-ounce) cans whole baby clams, including juice, or 6 (6 1/2 -ounce) cans chopped or minced clams, including juice

1 1/2 pounds red-skin potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, cut into half-inch pieces

4 cups of milk (plus more as needed)

1/2 cup chopped scallion greens, optional

In a large, heavy pot, over medium-low heat, cook bacon, onion and celery in butter until celery is softened, about 8 minutes. Add milk, clams with their juice and potatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, until potatoes are very tender. Stir in scallion greens, if using. Taste for salt (you shouldn't need any) and pepper. Makes about 6 servings.

Bean and pasta soup

No, this isn't pasta e fagiole, that earthy Italian soup; this vegetarian main dish concoction is more Middle-Eastern than Mediterranean. It takes about 20 minutes to prep, about 45 minutes overall. We use Swiss chard leaves (like spinach, but more robust), plus a few other fresh herbs for all kinds of background flavors. And we use kidney beans for their color, but you can substitute cannellini beans or even black-eyed peas if you wish.

Should you want to de-vegetarianize this dish, substitute chicken broth for all or part of the water. Some warmed whole wheat pita and maybe some cheese make good accompaniments.

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

7 cups water (or part chicken broth)

About 1/3 pound dried linguine, broken into 2-inch pieces (1 1/2 cups)

16 fresh Swiss chard leaves, stems and center ribs discarded, leaves coarsely chopped (about 12 cups)

1 (19-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed, drained

3/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

3/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill

3/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

3/4 cup finely chopped scallion greens

Sour cream and lemon wedges, for serving

In a 6-quart pot, over medium-high, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add onions and salt, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 15 minutes. Remove 1/3 cup of the onions (for topping) and set aside.

Add turmeric to onions in pot and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. (Turmeric will impart a nice yellow color to the soup.) Add water/broth, and bring to boil. Add linguine and boil, uncovered, until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in chard and beans and simmer, stirring now and then, until chard is tender, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in herbs and scallion. Taste for seasonings and adjust. Makes about 6 servings.

Yummy yam bisque

We don't have to wait 'til Thanksgiving to enjoy our sweet potatoes. This simple soup is relatively healthy, but you may want to add a side salad (for the greens), topped with store-bought rotisserie chicken (or turkey breast) slices.

1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted in a skillet with 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1 cup finely chopped leek (washed well, drained well)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 cup shredded carrots (from supermarket salad bar or produce section)

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes (2 to 3 medium size), peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced thin

1/2 pound russet (baking potato), peeled, halved lengthwise, sliced thin

5 to 6 cups reduced fat/sodium chicken broth, divided

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup water

crème fraiche, sour cream or plain yogurt, for serving

Toast the pecans in the unsalted butter; set aside.

For the soup, in a large pot, over medium, heat the 2 tablespoons butter. Add onion, leek, garlic, carrots and bay leaf and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes.

Add sweet potatoes and russet potato, 5 cups of the chicken broth, wine and water, and simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, until very tender. Discard bay leaf.

Cool slightly and, in a blender, in batches, puree mixture until very smooth.

Return to (cleaned out) pot. Add more chicken broth to thin, if desired. Taste for seasonings, adding pepper and salt, if desired. Heat gently.

To serve, ladle into soup plates. Top with a dollop of crème fraiche, then some of the toasted pecans. Makes 6 or more servings.

Tex-Mex corn chowder

This "chowdah" is a bit zippy, so add poblanos (aka pasillas) gently. A side salad would be good here, but not strictly de rigueur. Nacho chips will add crunch to the proceedings.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 medium Vidalia onion, coarsely chopped

3 stalks celery, including greens, coarsely chopped

2 large, fresh poblano (pasilla) chilies, seeded, pith removed, chopped

1 (14- to 15-ounce) can cream-style corn

1 (16-ounce) package frozen corn kernels, thawed

1 (8-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed

2 (14-ounce) cans reduced fat/sodium chicken broth

1 cup half and half

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 pound frozen, uncooked, peeled, deveined shrimp, thawed, coarsely chopped

6 tablespoons (1/3 cup) chopped, fresh cilantro, divided

In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons butter and flour into a paste. Keep handy.

Use a food processor to finely chop onions and celery.

In a large pot, over medium-high, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add onion-celery mixture and chilies and sauté until soft, about 6 minutes. Add creamed corn, corn kernels, spinach, chicken broth, half and half, sugar and cayenne pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Whisk in butter-flour mixture and simmer 15 minutes, stirring often, to meld flavors. Add shrimp and 4 tablespoons of the chopped cilantro. Simmer until shrimp are cooked through, about 5 minutes more. Taste for seasonings, adjust to your liking.

To serve, ladle chowder into soup plates. Sprinkle on remaining cilantro. Makes about 6 servings.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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