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Hearty soups are the ultimate comfort food

By McClatchy Newspapers

Hearty minestrone makes convivial, low-stress meal

Soup is the ultimate comfort food and one of the foundations of Italian cooking. Minestrone (literally "big soup") is easy to make and eminently adaptable. It gladly accepts just about any ingredient you care to toss in and delivers a satisfying meal in a bowl.

Styles of minestrone vary throughout Italy. Some have a thick texture, thanks to pureed beans and long-cooked vegetables, while others have a more broth-based consistency with lightly cooked vegetables or meats added toward the end of cooking.

Though delectable as written, the minestrone recipe here is easily adapted to whatever is on hand. No potatoes? Try sweet potatoes, turnips or squash. Kidney, navy or garbanzo beans can replace the cannellini beans. The rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano (never throw one away) gives the soup body and infuses it with a salty, nutty flavor.

Add small pasta to the soup during the last five minutes, or try the rice variation. Slice a loaf of crusty bread, open a bottle of Chianti, and Sunday supper is served.

Minestrone Soup

Adapted from "Hazan Family Favorites" by Giuliano Hazan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95). Makes 4 servings.

     1/2     medium yellow onion, finely chopped

     2     medium carrots, peeled and sliced

     2     celery ribs, diced

     3     tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

     2     tablespoons butter

     8     ounces cabbage (preferably Savoy)

     4     ounces green beans

     12     ounces boiling potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)

     12     ounces zucchini

     Salt and freshly ground pepper

     4    cups reduced-sodium chicken or beef broth

     Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)

     1 1/2     cups canned, drained cannellini beans

PLACE onion, carrots, celery, olive oil and butter in a 6-quart soup pot over medium-high heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion turns golden and carrots and celery just begin to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, finely shred cabbage.

TRIM ends of green beans and dice them. Peel potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Trim ends of the zucchini and cut into 1/2-inch dice.

ADD cabbage to sautéed vegetables, season lightly with salt and cook until cabbage wilts, about 5 minutes. Add green beans, potatoes, and zucchini. Add broth, 4 cups water and cheese rind.

BRING to boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, 2 1/2 hours.

ADD cannellini beans and cook 20 minutes more.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 422 calories (38 percent from fat), 18 grams fat (5 grams saturated fat, 9 grams monounsaturated fat), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 22 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams fiber, 1,800 milligrams sodium.

Minestrone with rice: Bring 3 cups soup and 3 cups water to a boil. Stir in 3/4 cup Arborio or other Italian rice, and cook until al dente, about 15 minutes. Ten minutes into cooking, add a dozen coarsely shredded fresh basil leaves. Serve at room temperature, drizzling each of the 4 portions with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil.

Pasta e fagioli as good as Olive Garden's

Pasta e fagioli, Italian for simply pasta and beans, is a hearty soup with plenty of vegetables, beans and, of course, pasta. The recipes vary on what kinds of pastas and beans to use as well as what to season the soup with.

The one ingredient that is constant in all is jarred spaghetti sauce. Some recipes were even brand-specific. Traditionally a meatless soup, many of the recipes also called for ground beef.

Some recipes called for using the beans with their liquid and some didn't. Draining the liquid from canned beans reduces the sodium in the recipe. But the liquid can be used to thicken the soup. So set some aside.

Slow-cooker Pasta e Fagioli Soup

Makes about 12 servings (1 1/4 cups per serving). Prep time: 20 minutes. Total: 7 to 8 hours on slow-cooker low setting.

     2     pounds ground beef chuck

     1    cup diced onion

     3     carrots, chopped or julienned

     3    ribs celery, chopped

     2     cloves garlic, peeled, minced

     2    cans (28 ounces each) diced tomatoes

     1    can (15 ounces) red kidney beans, drained

     1    can (15 ounces) cannellini beans, drained

     2    cans (15 ounces) beef stock

     1    jar (24 ounces) traditional spaghetti sauce

     1     tablespoon white vinegar

     1 1/2     teaspoons salt

     3     teaspoons oregano

     2     teaspoons basil

     1     teaspoon Tabasco sauce

     8     ounces ditalini pasta

BROWN ground beef in large skillet. Drain fat.

PUT beef and all ingredients except the pasta into a large slow cooker. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours or high for 4 to 5 hours. Before serving, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and add to soup.

TO COOK soup on the stovetop: Brown meat in a large soup pot. Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except pasta, and simmer 1 hour. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Add pasta to soup and simmer 10 minutes more.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 412 calories (32 percent from fat), 15 grams fat (5 grams saturated fat), 39 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams protein, 870 milligrams sodium, 72 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams fiber.

Mulligatawny has Anglo-Indian origins

Mulligatawny soup has Anglo-Indian origins attributed to servants for the English Raj in India. Curry powder and ginger give the soup a pungent flavor while chicken and freshly diced apple provide a contrast in texture. There are also vegetarian versions using almonds instead of meat.

Authentic curry powder is a blend of freshly ground spices and herbs such as cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cumin; it's made fresh every day. Commercial curry powder comes in two forms: standard and the hotter Madras.

I mentioned mulligatawny soup when I interviewed Indian author Madhur Jaffrey on my radio program and was surprised by the many calls requesting a recipe. I created this tangy, 20-minute version using commercial curry powder and canned light coconut milk.

This soup tastes great the second day. If you have time, make double.

Serve with microwaved white rice, about 3/4 cup cooked rice per person.

Wine suggestion: This spicy dish would go nicely with a slightly off-dry white chenin blanc.

Mulligatawny Soup

Makes 2 servings.

     2     teaspoons butter

     1    cup sliced onion

     1/2  cup sliced carrots

     1/2  cup sliced celery

     1/2     pound boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into 1-inch pieces

     1/2     tablespoon curry powder

     1     tablespoon flour

     1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, chopped (1 tablespoon) or 1 teaspoon ground ginger

     1 1/2     cups fat-free, low-salt chicken broth

     1    cup water

     1/2  cup light coconut milk

     Salt and freshly ground black pepper

     1    cup cored and cubed apple

     2     tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

     4     lemon wedges

HEAT butter over medium-high heat in a large nonstick saucepan.

ADD onion, carrots, celery and chicken and sauté 5 minutes. Add the curry powder, flour and ginger and sauté about 30 seconds.

STIR in chicken broth, water and coconut milk and simmer 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

TO SERVE, spoon rice into 2 large soup bowls and ladle soup on top. Sprinkle with chopped apple and cilantro. Place lemon wedges on side.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 469 calories (21 percent from fat), 10.9 grams fat (5.1 grams saturated, 2.2 grams monounsaturated), 82 milligrams cholesterol, 32.4 grams protein, 62.4 grams carbohydrates, 5.1 grams fiber, 666 milligrams sodium.

Skin stays on in low-calorie potato-celery soup

My old version of potato soup weighed in at more than 220 calories and 12 fat grams per cup -- way too much.

But I wasn't about to give up potato soup, so I went on the hunt for a healthy version and found a good one in a Joan Lunden cookbook.

I made a few alterations to her recipe. I substitute celery for leeks because celery has more fiber. I use more chicken broth and less water.

And I don't peel the potatoes, because that would strip away plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber is good for weight loss because it helps you feel full longer.

Potato-Celery Soup

Adapted from a recipe in "Joan Lunden's Healthy Cooking." Makes 10 servings.

     5     large baking potatoes (about 3 to 3 1/2 pounds), cut into small cubes

     2    cups chopped celery (or leeks, white part only)

     2     tablespoons butter

     2    to 3 cups chicken broth

     1    to 2 cups water

     1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste

     1/2  to 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, or to taste

     1/2  cup 1 percent milk

     1/2  cup light sour cream

     Salt and pepper to taste

     1     bunch chives, chopped

COMBINE in a large pot, the potatoes with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender.

COOK in a large nonstick skillet, the celery in the butter over moderately low heat for 5 minutes. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot.

ADD the broth and 1 cup of water. Using a stick blender, puree about 3/4 of the mixture. Some of the potato cubes should be left for texture. Do not overblend or the soup will be gluey. (If you don't have a stick blender, transfer the mixture to a blender in batches.)

ADD the celery, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, milk, sour cream and salt and pepper to taste and heat the soup until it is hot.

STIR in some of the additional water, if necessary, to achieve the consistency you want.

GARNISH each portion with chopped chives.

Nutrition information: Per 1 cup serving: 127 calories, 3.3 fat grams.


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