Soups for autumn

Hearty, warming combinations good for solo use, guests and leftovers

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Now that summer is over, I can feel myself shifting gears, at least as far as food goes. With the changing seasons come cooler temperatures. I like to honor that transition by making food to warm the spirit, the body and the soul. Making some real comfort food - a hearty soup - is a great way to do so.

Autumn harvest gives us the bounty that can feed our creativity. I am always excited by the variety and amount of fall vegetables staring at me from my countertop and refrigerator: zucchini, cauliflower, butternut squash, carrots, onions, greens, tomatoes, mushrooms - well, you get the picture. Making a pot of soup is a great way to use up a lot of produce and create something both tasty and nutritious.

What's even better is that soup, whether robust or refined, is one of the easiest meals to prepare, requiring just a little chopping and dicing. A perfect meal for one or for a crowd, soup is infinitely freezable, dividable and double-able! (You can even add a cup or two of water and stretch it for unexpected guests.) A great side benefit is that your kitchen and your home will be full of heavenly smells that will tempt the appetites of your whole family. To complete the meal, all you need is some crusty bread and a green salad.

For a hearty autumn meal that will stick with you, try a chunky combination of spicy sausage, butternut squash and baby greens. Simply brown the meat, add vegetables, some white wine and a quart or two of homemade or store-bought broth. Simmer for an hour or so and enjoy.

Looking for a way to use up all that zucchini? Make a chicken, zucchini and corn soup, so thick and rich it is almost a stew. Add some green chile for a bit of zip, and you'll warm your insides despite the coolest evenings.

And for a lighter, yet still substantial offering, try a traditional mushroom barley soup, made even more nutritious with a handful or so of baby spinach. It's vegetarian and delicious.

The beauty of soup is that the lowliest produce can contribute to the most elegant of repasts. Take the simple cauliflower. You couldn't find a more unpretentious ingredient. But the end result is anything but humble. Chop it up and simmer with some broth, add curry and serve as is - or puree for a unique and stunning result.

If you have kids who won't eat their veggies, a pureed soup is a great way to go. They won't complain or even notice that they're eating a variety of vegetables. Any well-seasoned vegetable soup can be pureed and garnished for a meal in itself or as a festive starter. And for extra yumminess, you can add a touch of cream, which also adds a little protein to the soup.

However you slice it, dice it or puree it, soup can be a welcome and satisfying lunch or dinner that will please your palate and comfort you and your family on a cold day.

SPICY SAUSAGE, BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND BABY GREENS SOUP

1 large onion, diced

3 stalks celery, diced

2 large carrots, diced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 medium butternut squash, peeled and diced

8 cups or more organic baby greens (kale, spinach, mesclun, etc.), chopped

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound (about 4 links) precooked Cajun sausage*, diced

1/2 cup dry sherry or white wine

2 quarts homemade chicken or vegetable stock

Heat oil in large soup kettle. Add onions, celery, carrots and garlic. Sauté over medium-high heat until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the butternut squash and sauté for about 5 minutes more. Turn heat to high. Add the baby greens and the bay leaves and sauté until the greens are wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage* and sauté for another 5 minutes until everything is covered with oil and is glistening. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and be sure all the brown bits are incorporated into the mixture. Add the stock, bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 1-2 hours.

Taste for seasonings and add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

*Note: If you can't find precooked sausage, slice up the raw sausage and cook in a skillet until well browned before adding to soup.

This recipe makes eight to 12 servings.

CHICKEN, ZUCCHINI AND CORN SOUP

1-2 pounds boneless chicken breasts and thighs, cut into cubes

About 2 tablespoons olive oil for cooking, divided

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup diced celery

2 cups corn cut from the cob - or frozen corn

2-3 medium tomatoes, diced

4-5 medium zucchinis, diced

1/2 cup chopped mild or medium green chile

2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Chopped cilantro or parsley for garnish

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 5-quart stock pot. Brown the chicken until it has lost its raw color. Remove chicken to a bowl and set aside.

Add the remaining oil to the pot. Cook the onion and celery until softened. Add the corn and stir, cooking for a minute or so. Then add the reserved chicken and its juices from the bowl, cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, the zucchini, the green chile and stir to combine. Add the broth and scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Taste and add salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro or parsley and serve.

MUSHROOM AND BARLEY SOUP WITH SPINACH

1 pound sliced mushrooms, any variety

1 small onion, chopped

1 carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1/2 cup barley, rinsed

6 cups vegetable, chicken or beef stock

4 cups baby spinach

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Chopped parsley for garnish

Combine the mushrooms, the onion, the carrot, the celery, the barley and the broth in a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes until the barley is cooked and the vegetables are tender. Add the spinach and cook another 5-10 minutes until wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with a sprinkling of parsley.

CURRIED CAULIFLOWER SOUP

1 diced onion

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 stalks celery, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets

1/4 cup diced mild or medium green chiles

2 cups vegetable stock

1-2 cups water, to thin as needed

1 can light coconut milk

Juice of 1 lime

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup diced red pepper

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

1/4 chopped cilantro

1 lime cut into 8 thin rounds

Heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic and celery, then sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until vegetables have softened. Add the ginger, curry powder, turmeric, cauliflower and chiles, then sauté for a few minutes more until everything is glistening. Add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to low heat, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes until cauliflower is tender, adding water if mixture gets too dry. Add 1 can light coconut milk, mix well and bring to a simmer for 5-10 minutes. Add the lime juice.

You may serve the soup as is or puree it until smooth. With an immersion blender, blend soup until creamy (alternately, blend in batches in the food processor). Taste for seasonings and add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

To serve, float a lime round on surface of soup, garnish with a little diced red pepper and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds and cilantro.

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