(Jan. 3) At its most basic, a steaming cup or bowl of soup represents sustenance, nutrition and comfort. A serving of the simplest of soups can leave us feeling satisfied, full and ready to continue or complete our day.

“Soup is truly the ultimate comfort food. It’s a way for people to take good care of themselves,” says Joan Scharff, executive director of marketing for 100-unit Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes salad buffet restaurants, operated by Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., San Diego.

Because soups are so basic to eating, it’s easy to overlook their potential as a menu attraction. But teamed with crusty bread or a salad, extraordinary soup can take on star quality as the centerpiece of a satisfying meal. Consider adding one or two new soup recipes to your stable of best sellers.

Scharff says it’s important to strike a balance between following eating trends and offering the traditional soups that people love. “People still want to see their favorites,” she says. The company introduces and tests new soups quarterly, although the vegetarian harvest remains among the most popular. The soup features leeks, onions, garlic, vegetable stock, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, celery, yellow squash, tomatoes, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, rice, anise, parsley, tarragon, soy sauce, dill, fennel, salt and pepper. The dill, anise and tarragon provide the soup’s mild herbal flavor.

FALL FLAVORS

Today’s wide variety of fresh fall and winter produce enables you to experiment and create new, exciting collages of flavor, color and texture in a bowl.

At Beehive Restaurant, Denver, co-owner/chef Janice Henning offers a curry kabocha squash with French lentils soup. She prefers kabocha squash for its denseness. “It has a lot of sweetness and richness,” she says.

To make the soup, she roasts and scoops out the squash and sautés it with carrots, celery and onion. Then she adds peeled and sliced braeburn apple. After she cooks, purees and strains the mixture, she cooks the French lentils and adds them to the blend before serving. She flavors the soup with madras curry, thyme, bay leaf and garlic and garnishes it with cilantro cream made of cilantro leaves and yogurt. The flavor is sweet and spicy with some earthiness, Henning says.

Dave Ramirez, sous chef at Chanterelle, New York, serves a hearty cream of garlic soup. The soup stems from his favorite potato base recipe made of sliced onions with butter and sliced potatoes. He adds chicken stock or water along with roasted garlic and purees all the ingredients before straining through a chinoise.

Fruit can even find its way into warm winter soups, says Zhee Zhee Aguirre, chef/co-owner of Mixx, San Diego. Roasted apple soup is a popular winter dish among her customers. To prepare it, she roasts apples with lemon juice, ginger chunks, fresh ground cinnamon and cranberries. Then she purees the mixture with white chocolate, adds a drizzle of honey and garnishes the soup with whipped cream.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Some of the simplest produce items and ingredients can surprise your customers and leave them with a delicious memory of your establishment. Don’t overlook common root vegetables and beans when you experiment with new soup ideas.

“In New York everyone is always looking for the next big thing,” says Erica Wides, chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, New York. She sees popularity among some of the common vegetables, like cauliflower and such root vegetables as parsnips, turnips and carrots. “I find a lot of chefs turning to these vegetables because you can coax a lot of flavor out of them,” she says.

Aguirre of Mixx makes a carrot and almond soup with a base of onions, garlic and water. She blanches and peels the almonds and sautés them in the base, then adds water, carrots and salt and brings it to a boil. After the carrots become tender, she purees the entire mixture. “The almonds make the soup creamy and nutty. It’s not that fake almond amaretto flavor, but a more nutty flavor,” she says.

Diners enjoy an unusual blend of flavors in Aguirre’s celery root and white chocolate soup. She cooks the celery root until tender and adds parsnips, onions, garlic and potatoes and covers the vegetables with water. When the vegetables are tender, she purees the mixture with salt, cayenne pepper and white chocolate to achieve what she describes as a buttery, savory celery flavor.

“The white chocolate adds creaminess and sweetness, and the celery root gives the soup its savoriness,” she says. She likens the soup’s texture to finely pureed potato soup without the graininess.

For extra color and flavor, Aguirre drizzles homemade red chili oil onto the soup. She makes the oil with red jalapenos, red bell peppers, arbol peppers and dried red chilis. She sautés the whole peppers, including seeds, with olive oil and simmers it for an hour. “It adds a roasted pepper, spicy flavor,” she says.

Diners at Lumi, New York, enjoy savory bean soups during the winter, says executive chef Anne Burelle.

“I love to do good hearty bean soups with good extra virgin olive oil,” she says. These soups serve more as a meal than a first course. Burelle recommends using borlotti or cranberry beans and cannellini beans, tomatoes and a variety of pasta shapes to create such a soup. She typically drizzles olive oil on top and serves it with crusty bread.

Occasionally she purees beans for a Tuscan bean soup. While sweating the onions and garlic, she adds rosemary, thyme and bay leaf and combines the mixture with the beans and water. To finish the soup, she adds a sprinkle of fresh sage. Adding sage earlier with the other herbs will cause its flavor to dissipate, she says.

Bruce Fishback, chef/owner of Bread & Ink Café, Portland, Ore., uses diced and sautéed kale, savoy cabbage, carrots, celery, onions, sage, oregano and vegetable stock to make his coarse Tuscan bean soup. “It’s a simple soup, but quite lovely,” he says. He garnishes the soup with garlic toast croutons and fresh Parmesan cheese. To intensify the flavor, he often roasts the vegetables.

Chanterelle’s Ramirez serves a rustic duck confit white bean and kale soup. He sautés onions, garlic and white beans in duck fat before cooking the beans in a chicken stock. He adds julienned kale or swiss chard to order and tops the soup with shredded duck confit.

LAST CALL FOR COLOR

Maximize the eye appeal inherent in a steaming bowl of soup with colorful produce.

Beehive’s Henning says her red Thai coconut curry soup owes its beautiful, deep pink color to its curry and tomato paste. To make the soup, she combines Thai-style curry paste, lemon grass, ginger, cilantro, coconut, tomato paste, lime juice and zest, fish stock, fish sauce and brown sugar. She purees and strains the combination, which she says looks similar to a lobster bisque.

For more interest, she adds mussels and scallops to the base. “The fish adds depth of flavor and you can use calamari or shrimp instead of the mussels if you prefer,” she says. The recipe makes a spicy and sweet blend of flavors with the ginger and lemon grass playing against the coconut and curry.

Chanterelle’s Ramirez prepares a ginger carrot soup for its bright orange color. “It’s incredibly vibrant,” he says. He makes a base of sautéed onions and garlic, then adds chicken stock, carrots and a jar of pickled sushi ginger and mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine. After the mixture cooks, he purees and strains it.

For extra color in other soup recipes, Ramirez often orders assorted red, yellow and white baby carrots. “You could make a soup of two different carrot purees and swirl the two together,” he says.

Gazpacho soups also bring color to the table. “Gazpacho originally was made with onions, grapes, bread and vinegar,” says Wides of the Institute of Culinary Education. Tomatoes, cucumbers and other common add-ins evolved over time. Gazpacho makes a delicious meal when grilled shrimp accompanies it. “Try serving it in a martini glass,” she adds.

Mixx’s Aguirre makes a white truffled green gazpacho. She uses tomatillos, green peppers, yellow tomatoes, spinach, garlic, deseeded jalapeno peppers and bread crumbs that have been soaked in water with salt and pepper. She garnishes the dish with hothouse cucumbers and cilantro. “The flavor is a smooth garlic flavor, not a raw, sharp garlic flavor,” she says.