Soups to thaw that January chill

Winter is a season of intense contrasts, from vigorous outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing to intimate conversations with friends by a roaring fire. The body’s inner clock is ticking away, keeping track of the shorter days and frosty nights.

Once our souls have been marked by that January chill, the only hope for soothing revival comes by way of the kitchen. Special toe-warming, satisfying preparations with a nurturing factor so high ... that if we were cats, we would be curled up and purring by the hearth.

There’s soup, for one thing. Winter, after all, is Soup Season. And because homemade winter soups are as much nourishment for the soul as the body, they’re worth the effort. Even if you don’t do all those correct pre-soup things that I talked about last week, like making your own stock, you can still throw together a powerful pot of soul soup.

At its most basic level, soup is a personal thing between the cook and the pot. It requires a good deal of time on the cook’s part — standing over the pot reflecting on life and all its components, including, perhaps, all the winter vegetables that sing their sweetest song in the worst kind of weather.

Life’s bound to look a little better after that.

My Favorite Pea Soup

Makes about 6 cups

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 or 3 meaty ham hocks

6 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water

1 cup dry split peas

2 good-sized stalks of celery, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped (no need to peel it)

2 large potatoes (Yukon gold or russet), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

Salt, if necessary

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, over medium heat, saute the onion and garlic with the olive oil for about 3 minutes. Add the ham hocks and the chicken broth. Cover the pot and continue cooking until the ham hocks are very tender (and the meat will shred when tested with a fork), about 1- to 1½ hours. Remove the hocks with a slotted spoon and let them cool until they can be handled. Separate the meaty portions from the fat and bone. (NOTE: You can cook the ham hocks up to 24 hours ahead; refrigerate them, along with the cooking liquid, until ready to proceed with the recipe).

Return the bite-sized pieces of meat to the pot. Stir in the split peas, along with the celery, carrot and potato.

Adjust the temperature of the burner so the mixture cooks at a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the peas and potatoes are tender but not too mushy.

The soup may need another 10 or 15 minutes to be absolutely perfect, but any longer than that and you’re risking a totally mushy outcome (which isn’t a tragedy, mind you). If the soup seems too thick, add some water or broth. If it’s too thin, take off the lid for the last few minutes of cooking so extra liquid can cook off.

Remove the pot from the heat and taste it. If it needs salt, this would be the time to add it.

Lamb Shank Soup with Tomatoes and Flageolet Beans

Makes 8 servings.

This soup is very substantial and can be served as a meal in itself.

2½ tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 lamb shanks (about 2½ pounds) trimmed of all fat

1½ carrots, diced

1½ red onions, diced

1 large stalk of celery, diced

6 cloves finely minced garlic

3 sprigs of parsley, chopped

2 sprigs of thyme, chopped

2 (14-ounce) cans diced tomatoes in juice

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

9 cups water

1 (14-ounce) can flageolet beans, drained

For the gremolata:

4 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 clove fresh garlic, peeled and finely minced

Grated zest of ½ lemon

Warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Salt and pepper the shanks, then add them to the pot, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, turning them to brown on all sides thoroughly. Remove the shanks from the pot. Discard the rendered fat, adding the remaining 1½ tablespoons olive oil and the carrots, onions and celery. Raise the heat and brown the vegetables for 15 minutes, stirring often to keep them from burning.

Add the 6 cloves of minced garlic, parsley and thyme to the pot and stir. Add the tomatoes with their juice and the balsamic vinegar. Set the lamb shanks on the bed of vegetables and cover with the water. Bring to a gentle boil and immediately reduce the heat to a bare simmer (if the liquid boils too vigorously, it will evaporate too quickly). Cook the shanks for 2 hours, undisturbed and uncovered. When done, remove the shanks from the pot and transfer to a plate to cool.

Raise the heat and let the pot bubble gently for 15 minutes. During this time, skim all the fat and foam that rises to the surface. (Another purpose for this additional cooking is to reduce the amount of broth and intensify the flavor of the soup.) When the shanks are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, pull it apart into bite-sized pieces, and add it back to the soup. Add the drained flageolet beans. Bring the soup to a simmer.

To prepare the gremolata, combine the parsley, garlic and lemon zest.

Correct the soup for salt, generously pepper it, and serve in warm bowls. Sprinkle gremolata over each bowl.

For a nice touch, put a flask of good-quality olive oil on the table for diners to drizzle on their soup if desired, and plenty of warm bread to dip into the soup.

— Recipe adapted from “Chez Panisse Cooking,” by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters

Leek Soup Au Gratin

Here’s a steamy entree soup to help you enjoy the winter leek bounty.

Makes 6 servings.

6 tablespoons butter

4 cups thinly sliced leek rings (white and pale green portions only)

1 quart canned beef broth

2 to 3 tablespoons dry sherry, or 1 to 2 tablespoons brandy

¼ teaspoon white pepper

¼ teaspoon salt

6 toasted French bread croutons (see below)

2 cups each coarsely grated Jarlsburg cheese and Monterey Jack cheese

In a large pot, melt the butter and saute the leeks over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, sherry, pepper and salt, and simmer for another 15 minutes to blend the flavors and tenderize the leeks. Adjust the seasonings and ladle the soup into 6 ovenproof soup bowls. Add the French bread croutons, sprinkle each bowl with 1/3 cup of the Monterey jack cheese, and then top with 1/3 cup of the Jarlsburg. Place the bowls under the broiler until the cheeses melt and turn slightly golden, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately.

Toasted French Bread Croutons: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place 6 slices of French bread cut ½- to ¾-inch thick on a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the bread is thoroughly dried and lightly golden. About halfway through the process, spread both sides of each slice with a small amount of butter. These can be prepared several hours ahead.

White Bean, Bacon and Potato Soup

This is an extremely satisfying soup to have on hand for an autumn day hike or tour through the wine country. It freezes and reheats very nicely.

1½ cups dried cannellini beans, sorted and rinsed

¼ pound bacon, diced

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

½ cup finely chopped celery

3 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 cup dry sherry

7 cups chicken broth

2 cups cubed Yukon gold potatoes (cut in ½-inch cubes)

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

Salt to taste

Parmesan cheese for garnish

Soak the beans for at least 24 hours in a large bowl of water; drain.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, over medium-high heat, saute the bacon until browned. Reduce the heat to medium-low, remove the bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and set aside, then pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the bacon drippings and saute until the onion is softened and translucent, about 3 minutes. Pour in the sherry and deglaze the bottom of the pot by stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot to dissolve the cooked-on food particles, and cooking until the sherry has reduced by half.

Add the chicken broth and the soaked and drained beans, and cook for 15 minutes. Add the potato cubes, rosemary, thyme and pepper, and continue cooking until the potatoes and beans are tender, another 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the bacon and adjust the seasonings by adding salt to taste and additional pepper if needed. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

May be prepared up to 2 days ahead, refrigerated and reheated before serving, or frozen for 3 months. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Spanish Lentil and Sausage Soup

The original creator of this soup, Peter Reinhart, suggested it worked particularly well with Bruce Aidell's fabulous Creole sausage. I heartily agree. But if you can't find, it another Creole variety or even a chorizo or linguica style will work.

7½ cups chicken broth

2 cups (1 pound) uncooked green lentils, washed and picked through for stones

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 pounds Creole sausage, linguica or chorizo, chopped into small pieces

2 onions, diced

8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

½ cup dry white wine

20 ounces frozen chopped spinach (two 10-ounce packages) or 8 cups tightly packed chopped fresh spinach

1 can (28 ounces) diced or crushed tomatoes with juice

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

In a soup pot, bring the broth to a boil, add the lentils, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the lentils are tender, but not falling apart. Stir the pot periodically to prevent sticking and burning.

While the lentils are cooking, heat a frying pan, add the vegetable oil, and saute the sausage until crisp and brown. Push the sausage to one side, add the onions and garlic, and continue cooking until the onions become translucent. Remove from the heat.

When the lentils are tender, add the sausage mixture with the oil. Stir in the dry white wine, spinach, tomatoes and pepper. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook for an additional 15 minutes to merge the flavors. Garnish each serving with chopped parsley. Serves 8.

— Adapted from "Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe," by Brother Peter Reinhart

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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