Elegant, easy soups

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

THERE'S A LAMENTABLE tendency, I believe, to take soup for granted. Perhaps it's a failure by those of us who neither labor nor play in the open air to appreciate soup's restorative qualities, or it may be the predictability of the contents of all those cans of soup on supermarket shelves.

When I convince myself to skip the fantasy salad and instead order soup in a fine restaurant, I'm usually delighted. Each time I make one at home, I discover again how easy (if occasionally time-consuming) they are to make and how flexible the concept -- strain broth to create an elegant consomme or serve with chunks of vegetables for family supper.

To illustrate, here are economic and healthy soups that rely heavily on vegetables and are suitable for company or for family dining.

Sweet-Potato Vichyssoise

2 cups chopped leeks (white part of 2 large leeks)

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon margarine or butter

2 1/2 cups diced, peeled sweet potato (about 3/4 pound)

3 cups chicken broth

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 cups milk or half-and-half

1 tablespoon chopped chives

a large saucepan, cook chopped leeks and onion in margarine, covered, over low heat until soft but not browned, about 15 minutes.

Add sweet potatoes and broth; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a blender or food processor, puree soup until smooth.

Return soup to saucepan. Add salt, white and cayenne pepper and milk.

Just before serving, bring soup to a simmer but do not allow to boil. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle chives over each portion. Serve at once or, in summer, chill soup and serve cold. Serves six.

Harlequin Soup

8 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

2 medium onions, peeled and sliced thin

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

8 cups chicken broth, double strength if homemade

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Salt (optional)

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, freshly ground preferred

3 pounds fresh spinach, cleaned and stems removed, or 2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

1/2 cup sour cream or creme fraiche, optional for garnish, at room temperature

Fresh herbs, sliced olives, thinly sliced lemon, for garnish, optional

Place carrots, half the onion and four tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add one-quarter cup chicken broth

(it should barely cover the bottom of the pan). Bring broth to a simmer, turn heat to low and cook, stirring often, until carrots and onion are soft and onion has begun to caramelize. Add ground cumin and pepper and cook one minute longer.

Remove pan from heat, scrape contents into a blender or food processor. Add one-quarter cup broth and puree carrot mixture. Add 3 1/2 cups broth and blend. Taste soup, adjust seasoning as desired. Return to pan. Clean blender.

Meanwhile, heat remaining butter and onion in a separate pan. Cook onion until soft and translucent. Add spinach and stir until wilted. Add nutmeg and cook an additional minute.

Remove pan from heat, scrape content into clean blender or food processor. Add one-quarter cup broth and puree spinach mixture. Add 3 3/4 cups broth and blend. Taste soup, adjust seasoning as desired. Return to pan. (Recipe may be done ahead to this point. Refrigerate soups separately.)

Reheat each soup to a simmer. Have soup plates or wide-mouth bowls close at hand. Pour each soup into a separate pitcher. Pour both soups from their pitchers into opposite sides of a soup plate at the same time. Half the surface will be green, half orange. Repeat with remaining soup plates.

Garnish each bowl with a swirl of sour cream from a squeeze-top bottle or add the sour cream in a dollop. Serve at once. Serves 10 to 12.

Roasted Garlic and Shiitake Mushroom Soup

1 large head garlic

Vegetable oil

2 large yellow onions, chopped

3 tablespoons butter

8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps sliced thin

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped

8 cups chicken broth

Zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Hot-pepper sauce to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced

Roasted red-pepper puree (recipe follows)

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Rub garlic head lightly with oil, place in a skillet with a heatproof handle and roast in oven until soft, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool, break up head and squeeze garlic pulp from each clove. Set aside.

In a saucepan, cook onions with 1 1/2 tablespoons butter until onions are soft and golden, but not browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Puree with two or three tablespoons broth in a food processor or blender. Set aside.

Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in garlic skillet, add mushrooms and saute over medium-high heat, turning often, until lightly browned.

In a pot or large saucepan, combine onion puree and garlic pulp, thyme and broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Recipe may be done ahead to this point.

Add lemon zest, one tablespoon lemon juice and mushrooms. Bring to a simmer and season to taste with hot-pepper sauce, salt, pepper and additional lemon juice, if desired.

Portion soup into bowls, sprinkle parsley over each portion and add a dollop of red-pepper puree. Serve at once. Serves eight.

Red-pepper Puree

1 red bell pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

AHeat oven to broil, or turn on gas burner to high. Char pepper on all sides until completely blackened. Place pepper in a paper bag, close top and leave for five minutes. Remove pepper from bag and scrape off blackened film.

L Remove stem and seeds from pepper and cut flesh into chunks.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine pepper, garlic, oil, lemon juice and puree until smooth. Add salt to taste. Refrigerate until needed. Use as a garnish for soups or to flavor a mayonnaise for cold meat sandwiches. Makes about one-half cup.

Fennel Soup

5 to 5 1/2 pounds (about 8) fennel bulbs, trimmed, reserving some leaves

1 1/2 cups olive oil

1/2 cup (2 ounces) chopped shallots

2 cloves garlic, smashed

5 or 6 sprigs fresh thyme

6 cups chicken stock, heated

salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 medium lemon

1 cup Italian parsley leaves

2 cups 1-inch cubes of country bread

Peel the fennel bulbs and cut into small cubes. In a 2 1/2 - to 3-quart saucepan, heat one-quarter cup olive oil. Sweat the fennel, shallots, garlic and leaves from the thyme for about five minutes, stirring to coat with the oil. Pour in the stock and season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until fennel is very tender, about 20 minutes.

Transfer to a blender and blend to a smooth puree (you will have to do this in batches). Strain through a fine strainer into a clean saucepan. Juice the lemon, stir the juice into the soup and correct seasoning to taste. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, in the blender, combine one-half cup parsley leaves and one cup olive oil and blend until pureed. Set aside.

Arrange the croutons on a baking tray in one layer. Toast in a preheated 400-degree oven, turning to toast all sides, about five minutes. In a medium skillet, heat three to four tablespoons olive oil. Stir in two to three tablespoons finely chopped fennel leaves and the remaining one-half cup parsley leaves, chopped. Add the croutons and toss just to coat them with the oil and the herbs.

To serve, ladle the soup into eight heated bowls. Spoon a little of the parsley oil into the center and scatter some croutons over the top. Serve immediately. Place remaining parsley oil and croutons in small bowls and pass at the table.

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