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Homemade winter soups satisfy hunger, warm your body and lift your spirits

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The cold weather has returned to North Texas, and it looks like it may hang around for a while. These are the kind of days when the tips of one's toes get cold, and then the whole body never quite warms up completely; these are the days when a good read on a comfortable sofa would seem like heaven.

But, these are also days like any other. School goes on; work must be done. And, the family looks for dinner about the time it starts getting dark. These are perfect days to make soup. Homemade, quick to prepare, nutritious and delicious, soup can be an antidote for the cold as well as an answer to the perennial question, "What's for dinner?" Soup is comfort food.

Soup also makes good sense in other ways, as well as slashing dollars off your food budget.

Europeans traditionally begin a meal with a cup of soup, and nutritionists tell us that is a sound practice for anyone wanting to shed a few pounds. The warm liquid helps satisfy hunger, so that overeating becomes less likely. Also, soups are generally lower in calories than solid foods, and are packed with healthy vegetables, flavorful herbs and spices. Soups also have lesser amounts of the things we shouldn't eat so much of: Fats, starches and red meat. Even cream soups can pack a wallop in terms of nutritional benefit, but should probably be consumed judiciously.

Another benefit of soup is its adaptability. It can precede a dinner, or it can be the dinner. It can be down-home casual and accompany a special movie night in front of the TV, or it can be elegantly formal at the beginning of a gourmet evening with dressed-up adults.

This winter, there have been a lot of "Snow days," with the children home from school and looking for something to do. Why not make "Stone Soup?' It would be a great activity, especially with little ones, and might also be an effective way to get older children interested in cooking.

The best thing about making soup is that you really do not need a recipe to make a delicious soup. Soup can be quick to make; or it can be an all-day, simmer-on-the-stove event that gets better with time. With the addition of a green salad and a crusty bread, you have a wholesome, almost universally-liked dinner, sometimes for pennies a serving. Often, a previous day's leftovers can become the basis for a great soup; and you can substitute frozen or canned ingredients if you don't have fresh. Soup is basically a one-dish meal, so clean up is as simple as the preparation. It is "stretchable" if an unexpected guest stops by; what's left is appropriate for the next day's lunch, or can almost always be frozen.

Finally, soup is an individual, creative journey that can be anything you want it to be. There are only a few people on the planet who don't like soup.

With very little effort, you can pull together a quick soup from items you already have on hand. But, if you're headed to the market, stock up on the following basics:

  • yellow onions
  • celery, carrots, green peppers
  • chicken, beef or vegetable stock; perhaps fish stock, or some specialty bouillon cubes
  • canned tomatoes; whole, stewed or diced
  • additional fresh vegetables of your choosing; cabbage and spinach
  • dried beans, of any variety you choose
  • barley, rice or pasta (varieties like alphabet macaroni, small shells or pinwheels, and orzo)

Soups and stews are cousins in many ways, so if your family favors meatier, thicker stews, you can adjust your ingredients and, instead of preparing chicken soup with a lot of broth, you can make chicken and dumplings with equal ease. There are so many variations that you could have a different soup every day, and still have many to try at the end of a year.

Why not get started right away? There are a lot of recipes for Beef Barley Mushroom Soup pictured above. Here is one of them. It's so easy, though, that you can trust your instincts to make a personal specialty to please your palate. This column will be featuring a variety of different, simple soups in the coming days. If you would like to share your own favorites, please do so.

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