A SOUPED-UP SPRING Giving a fresh spin to veggies, fruits turns them into rich purees

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The thing about spring is that you never know when things are going to sprout -- in the supermarket, that is.

They simply show up, green and sassy from wherever, and you were hardly aware that they'd been missed.

But the fresh goods take their place beside the year-round fruits and vegetables and boy, are they miscellaneous! Each one seems to take off in its own direction. It's a potpourri that refuses to amalgamate.

Sound confusing? Not really. For the coming weeks are going to bring you such varied springtime choices as artichokes and fresh peas and rhubarb and affordable asparagus and spinach -- each an independent entity that seems to go its own way flavorwise.

The one thing they all seem to have in common is that all can be form the basis for spring soups -- yes, even the rhubarb. And spring soups, very often, have wide adaptability. Unlike heavy winter brews, they often can be served either hot or cold.

By mid-March, there should be plenty of new spring fodder in the markets, according to Cassie Browning, manager for Debbie's, specialty greengrocers of Belvedere Square, York Road.

Right now, some of the slack in supplies is being taken up by fruits from Peru and Chile."South America even ships white asparagus," says the food manager. She adds that the California mid-winter freeze damaged the artichoke crop, while in other areas, vegetable production seems promising, notably fresh spinach from Georgia and Texas.

"Lettuces will be better soon this year because we'll be into another planting from the south," the manager predicts. Similar new domestic crops arriving will be late March's fresh cauliflower and broccoli. Spring onions will be along even sooner. Growers started strawberries in January and crop prospects are good. But prices, partly because of the California freeze-drought situation, are uncertain:

"It all depends on what happens after the vegetables are out of the ground," says the manager.

Late winter and early spring normally shows a gradual fade-out of supplies in the markets of fruits, apricots, apples and peaches among them. That's why soup preparations can veer away from spicy fruit combinations and into lighter, vegetable fare.

Fresh pea soup is a world away from its heavy winter cousin, thhot and luxurious type with its slivers of ham and minced carrots. The idea with the spring version is quite different: to salvage as much of the fresh pea flavor and color as you can. The mint and pea soup combination is an English tradition that also emigrated to South Africa. In the French mint-pea version, delicate, finely shredded lettuce accompanies the peas.

This fresh pea soup is from Bernard Clayton, Jr.'s "The Complete Book of Soups and Stews," (Simon & Schuster, 1984, $17.95).

English pea soup with mint

Serves 8.

1 1/2 pounds of shelled (about 3 pounds unshelled) fresh peas (or frozen)

4 tablespoons butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 quart light beef or chicken stock

salt, if desired

pinch of freshly ground white pepper

1/4 teaspoon sugar

3 or more sprigs of fresh mint, to taste 2 egg yolks (optional)

1 cup thick cream

4 ounces shelled and boiled petits poix, to garnish with tiny top leaves of mint

Shell the peas or thaw frozen peas by pouring boiling water over them only long enough to thaw -- not to cook. Drain.

In a 4-quart saucepan, melt the butter and add the onion. Cover and cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. Pour the peas into the onion-butter mixture. Stir to mix well. Cover and continue to cook for 3 to 4 minutes until the butter has been absorbed. Add the stock to the saucepan, then the salt, white pepper, sugar and mint sprigs. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes or until the peas are just tender. Remove from heat and let the peas cool somewhat before proceeding.

Puree peas, onions and mint in the blender, food processor or food mill until smooth and creamy. Before serving, reheat the soup, but don't boil. If using egg yolks, beat them with the cream until smooth. Add cream to soup. Heat through, stirring all the time until the soup has thickened. Do not allow to boil as the cream may curdle. To serve hot, pour into heated soup bowls and garnish with a sprinkling of boiled petits poix. Arrange the mint leaves attractively in the center. To serve cold, ladle into chilled cups or glass bowls and garnish with mint only.

Irene Rothschild discovered this unusual artichoke soup in Philadelphia's Caffe DiLullo and uses it in her 1990 book "Cold Soups, Warm Salads" (E.P. Dutton, $10.95).

Chilled artichoke soup with lemon Serves 4.

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 sprig parsley

3 sprigs thyme

1 small bay leaf

1/4 cup dry white wine

juice of 2 lemons

4 fresh artichokes

3 cups chicken stock

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3/4 cup heavy cream

1 scallion, finely chopped, for garnish

In a saucepan, saute the onion and celery in butter until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, parsley, thyme and bay leaf and cook another minute. Add the white wine and juice of 1 lemon, and cook about 10 minutes to reduce a little. Meanwhile, prepare the artichokes by removing the stems and tough outer leaves, then cut in quarters vertically, discard the fuzzy chokes and chop coarsely. This should make about 4 cups.

Add the artichokes to the saucepan along with the chicken stock, salt and pepper. Bring to asimmer, cook for 15 minutes, remove from the heat and let cool. Puree in a food processor or blender and strain. When ready to serve, add the heavy cream and juice of the second lemon and adjust seasonings. Serve in chilled bowls topped with chopped scallion.

This breathtakingly simple fresh spinach preparation is presented in "Woman's Day's Simply Delicious Cold Dishes," by Carol Truax (Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1984, $16.95).

Spinach soup Serves 6.

2 pounds fresh spinach

3 cups chicken broth

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups half and half

Pick over the spinach, removing any tough stems. Wash thoroughly. Cook, covered in 1 cup broth for a few minutes, until spinach is wilted. Whirl in a blender or processor with the cooking liquid, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir in the remaining broth and half and half. Adjust seasoning, chill and serve in 6 cool bowls or a tureen.

Creme d'asperge has become a fancy restaurant standard today, but this unusual recipe plows new ground for that aristocrat of greens, asparagus. It's from "The Hay Day Cookbook" by those masters of down-home Connecticut Yankee cuisine, Maggie Stearns and Sallie Y. Williams, (Atheneum, 1986, $19.95.)

Cold asparagus curry soup Serves 4.

1 pound fresh asparagus

3 cups well-seasoned chicken broth

1 cup heavy cream

2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons Madras curry powder

lemon juice

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 teaspoons butter

Cut off asparagus tips in 1 1/2 -inch lengths and steam until just tender. Set aside. Chop the rest of the stems and simmer in chicken broth until very tender. Process the chopped asparagus and broth in a food processor or blender until smooth. Return puree to the saucepan and add cream, curry powder, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer for 5 minutes. Beat in butter, cool and chill soup.

Just before serving, beat the soup with a whisk and pour into serving bowls, sherbet cups or iced mugs. Top each bowl with several asparagus tips and serve with freshly ground pepper.

pTC A spoonful of creme fraiche, heavy cream or sour cream can be added to each bowl before serving, or pass a bowlful separately. Creme Fraiche: Add 1 tablespoon of sour cream or buttermilk to 1 cup heavy cream; shake well and let stand at room temperature for eight hours or overnight till it has thickened. (Author's note: Your own homemade chicken broth, rather than canned varieties, is recommended for this soup.)

In the unlikely event your search for fresh spring vegetables is not a success, here's a light, cold soup that depends on year-round availability of two nutritional standards, carrots and oranges. It's from "Classic Cold Cuisine" by Karen Green, (Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1984). "Its color is a sensational orange blush," says the author.

Carrot-orange soup Serves 4.

1 pound carrots, scraped and sliced

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups chicken broth

juice of 2 oranges ( 3/4 cup) strained

grated rind of 1 orange

juice of 1 lemon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

salt, white pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

chopped dried dates for garnish

Place carrots, onion and butter in a heavy soup pot and saute over low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally until onion is wilted and butter is absorbed by vegetables. Add chicken broth, stirring thoroughly, slightly increase heat, and cook until vegetables are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes.

Puree soup in a food processor or blender, processing for a few seconds to one minute, leaving a little texture. Return soup to pot, add orange juice, rind, lemon juice and cardamom. Season generously with salt, pepper and nutmeg and simmer another 1 to 2 minutes. Cool to room temperature and then chill several hours or overnight. Garnish individual servings with chopped dates.

Rhubarb is the unusual accent in this traditional Middle Eastern soup, culled from "Lebanese Mountain Cookery," by Mary Laird Hamady (David R. Godine, 1987, $19.95).

Lentil soup with rhubarb Serves 10 to 12.

2 pounds meaty lamb bones

3 1/2 quarts water

1 tablespoon of salt

1/3 cup of olive oil

2 cups of chopped onions

1 1/2 cups water

2 cups of lentils

1/4 cup of uncooked rice

L 2 to 3 stalks of rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

ground allspice

freshly ground pepper

lemon juice to taste

Heat bones, water and salt to boiling, skim, reduce heat cover and simmer three hours. Strain the broth. Pick meat off the bones and return to broth. (You should have 3 quarts of broth. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, add the onions and saute until well browned, about 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the water and simmer until water is almost absorbed, then add remaining water. Cook, stirring, until onions are very soft and water is absorbed.

In a large saucepan combine the reserved lamb broth, the lentils and the rice. Heat to boiling and simmer over low heat one hour, covered, until the lentils are tender. During the last 20 minutes add the rhubarb. When lentils and rhubarb are very soft, soup is ready. Season to taste with allspice, pepper and lemon juice.

Tips on soup preparation

Here are some pointers on soup preparation and service:

*If you're serving a soup cold, chill the bowls in the freezer at least 10 to 15 minutes.

*Yes, a hot soup will benefit from a warm bowl. If a microwave warmer isn't handy, pour boiling water in each bowl, let stand and empty it just before serving soup.

*White or fortified wines in very small amounts added at the last minute sophisticate light soups, say a scant teaspoon each to a bowl.

Choices can include sherry or dry white Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, an Italian white like Orvieto or an American chardonnay for elegant cream soups, red wine for hearty, meaty types. Cognacs and brandies generally suit only fruit soup preparations.

*Do not boil any soup with milk or cream in it.

*Five or six drops of lemon juice will sharpen the flavor of a soup prepared in small amounts.

*Almost all cold soups will benefit if the basic vegetable puree is chilled before the addition of cream or stock.

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