It's not often that I get to feel like Lidia Bastianich in the kitchen. But when I'm standing over a pot of minestrone that I've crafted from scratch, it's easy for me to believe I'm the chef I've always wished I could be. Even better, my houseguests believe it, too. With a little time spent chopping and sautéing, a few hours of simmering, and, just before serving, a splash of olive oil or grated Parmesan, my minestrone makes me look like a pro.
"Soup is the ultimate culinary magic trick," agrees Rebecca Katz, founder of The Inner Cook, a Bay Area organization that educates people and communities about making healthy food choices. "There are so many opportunities to add flavors and nutrients, and people find it intoxicating." Indeed, because nearly all soup recipes follow the same framework-a meat or vegetable stock, beans, vegetables, aromatics such as onions or leeks, pasta, spices, herbs, and a finishing touch of oil, cheese, or fresh herbs-you can experiment and personalize the dish. If you're cooking, for instance, an Italian-style soup such as minestrone, you're going to want veggies like fennel and tomatoes; French-style might call for shallots and a mix of seasonings such as herbes de Provence; and for Latin inspired flavor, begin with sautéed chorizo and end with a garnish of fresh cilantro.
That kind of improvising is what inspired David Ansel to establish The Soup Peddler delivery service in Austin, Texas. "In college," Ansel recalls, "I had a lot of housemates who were not particularly good with their produce. Soup was a great way to use what was on hand. I didn't need a lot of know-how, and the soups had a long shelf life." His knack for working wonders with vegetarian recipes ("I didn't know how to make meat stocks yet," he jokes) led to a start-up business in which he delivered cartons of homemade bisques, broths, chowders, and stews to Austin "soupies." In the space of a few years, Ansel transformed his enterprise into a million-dollar business and published The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups (Ten Speed Press, 2005), a cookbook that serves as a memoir of how his nutritious soups helped create a community in his Austin neighborhood.
But soup does more than just make you look like a pro: It also helps you and your dinner guests feel good. "Soup is so restorative and healing because it hydrates in a way that water alone doesn't," says Katz, whose book One Bite at a Time (Celestial Arts, 2004) offers recipes for people with cancer and for survivors (for whom soup can be a gentle "bridge" back to full, healthy eating). "Electrolytes and minerals go right into your blood, plumping up your cells." Sheryll Bellman, author of the cookbook America's Great Delis (Collectors Press, 2005), remembers, "My grandfather ate my grandmother's homemade chicken soup every day because he believed it kept him cold-free, and as I recall, it worked."
Anecdotal evidence aside, can soup cure the common cold? Manfred Kroger, professor emeritus of food science at Penn State, puts that claim in perspective: "Certainly, when hot vapor hits mucosal membranes, some live bacteria are killed; essential oils from herbs and spices also have antibacterial properties, as does the high salt content in most soups." But Kroger cautions, "It is a mild effect. I believe that because you know you're doing something good for your body, the placebo effect kicks in and you feel better. No doctor is prescribing soup to patients who have colds."
Whether or not a steaming bowl of soup can take the place of echinacea, andrographis, and bed rest, there's no disputing that it fortifies the body and spirit. To help you unleash your own inner Lidia (and impress your holiday houseguests), we asked Ansel, Bellman, and Katz to share some of their favorite soup recipes. Bellman, whose chicken soup recipe is featured here, encourages you to use your imagination. "Many of the finest soup recipes aren't even written down," she says. "Work intuitively: If the pot is big enough, put in two chickens instead of one, and toss in your herbs by the handful."