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WARMED BY SOUP

The Baltimore Sun

In Bolton Hill, the neighborhood pool is the summer social nucleus. In winter, there's the Soup Group.

It began as an informal get-together of a few families over soup. The host would make the soup, and the guests would bring wine and other dishes. Adults would visit and eat, while the kids watched videos and ate pizza or some other kid-friendly food. Over time, the Soup Group became a well-coordinated effort that takes place every three weeks in the winter months.

"I love having soup nights built into my winter social schedule," says member Jessica Dailey. "Bolton Hill has an appealing small-town feel, and yet I always seem to meet new, interesting people at these gatherings, and I always glean new soup ideas."

It was resident Connie Lisch who first mentioned the Soup Group to me. I ran into her on one of my evening walks around my new neighborhood last fall. While praising the virtues of Bolton Hill, where she says she has lived "forever," Lisch insisted I join the Soup Group to get a real feel for the neighborhood. "It's the friendliest place you'll ever find," she said.

The rules of the group are simple: Members agree to host the event once every two to three years, providing at least one large pot of soup - a pretty good deal when you consider that the entree gives you an automatic invitation every three weeks from late fall to early spring.

At first, people R.S.V.P.'d by phone; now hosts use the Web site Evite. The organizer sets up a schedule at the beginning of the soup season in late September and calls for hosts and co-hosts at that time. Only a few of the gatherings include children now, because having them there became too chaotic. Parents also found it was nice to have evenings out unencumbered by children.

I was a little nervous when my turn to host came up in January, knowing so few people in the neighborhood and not knowing exactly how many people I was feeding. A couple of days before the party, I got a call from the last soup host, and we arranged for me to pick up the communal soup bowls and spoons that are kept in easy-to-transport plastic containers with handles, as well as the glasses, which I opted not to use in favor of plastic to keep the number of dishwasher runs to a minimum.

I made a huge pot of lentil chestnut soup the day before the party and, on the day of, set up the dining room buffet-style, with the bar in the living room out of the way of the main event. At the last minute, I panicked about quantities and took my favorite homemade squash soup out of the freezer.

I checked Evite regularly for R.S.V.P.s, and my heart sank when I saw we were up to 50 guests. A bit panicked, I called co-host Kim Scaglione, who has been a member of the group for years. She reassured me: "The thing runs like clockwork, you'll see." She showed up 45 minutes early with an enormous pot of delicious-smelling soup with cheese, chicken and asparagus to put us further at ease.

Some brought the same standby favorites. ("Get in there now!" I was urged about a certain cream cheese and caviar hors d'oeuvre. "This goes fast!") Others, like Nicole Mitchell, brought new versions of old favorites. She produced one of her marvelous pies.

Our group that night included soup eaters ages 7 to 65. Besides the soups, we had many different kinds of breads that guests had brought and two wonderful salads - one green, the other more diverse, with crunchy chopped walnuts and sliced fresh pears.

I'd specifically asked guests to bring interesting cheeses, so we had a delightfully diverse cheese platter that went nicely with a huge bowl of different kinds of grapes. And I always love seeing the variety of a potluck dessert spread. Ours included a heavenly chocolate bourbon cake and several kinds of cookies.

The only down side of the Bolton Hill Soup Group is that it's grown so much that it's closed to new members. But it's easy to start your own soup group.

velvet lentil chestnut soup

(serves 8)

2 large onions, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

olive oil

2 cups lentils

10 cups vegetable broth

3 teaspoons dried thyme

2 dry bay leaves

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups cooked whole chestnuts (canned or in a jar, available in most specialty stores)

1 tablespoon honey, or more if desired

1 tablespoon creme fraiche or good-quality yogurt (Fage, available in most grocery stores)

Peel and chop the onions and garlic. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat up enough olive oil to amply coat the bottom of the pan, and cook the onions and garlic on medium heat until translucent, for about 10 minutes.

Add the lentils, vegetable broth, herbs and a bit of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and let simmer gently for 30 minutes. Add the chestnuts, and cook for another 10 minutes.

Try a spoonful to see if the lentils and chestnuts are cooked to your taste, and correct the seasoning. Add 1 tablespoon honey and taste again, adding more if you like. Remove bay leaves. Transfer the soup in batches to a food processor, being careful not to fill more than 1/3 full to avoid leakage, and mix it, being careful not to mix too thoroughly because chunks are particularly desirable in this soup.

Return the soup to the pot, add the creme fraiche or yogurt, and stir over low heat until nicely blended. (Alternatively, you can add less or no creme fraiche at this point, then add a dollop to each steaming bowl as you serve, or, if people are serving themselves, leave a bowl of creme fraiche or yogurt next to the soup tureen so guests can add as desired.)

Serve while hot.

Note: Lentils lend themselves to soup particularly well, and recipes can easily be made first in vegetarian form, then divided into 2 batches, after which you can add sausage or other cooked meats to half the recipe for the die-hard carnivores in the group.

Courtesy of Jennifer Crutcher Wilkinson

Per serving: : 389 calories, 20 grams protein, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 68 grams carbohydrate, 20 grams fiber, 1 milligram cholesterol, 1,182 milligrams sodium

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