Mmm, mmm soup

If you can boil water, you can make soup. The secret to creating an exceptional soup is starting with great stock.
When I was a child, my German-born mom would spend hours in the kitchen cooking up old-world meals made from freshly picked vegetables using her home country recipes. Sauerbraten (beef chuck marinated and stewed with red wine and vinegar), thick bacon and lentil soup, hearty bean and ham soup and goulash were just a few of her offerings.

I remember breathing in the steamy aroma of her soups and stews wafting from the kitchen window as I played in the snow.

Winter is an ideal time to experiment with savory soups, and hearty stews and chilis. They're not only easy to make, but when packed full of good stuff like lean meats, colorful veggies and whole grains, they're a veritable bowl full of health. Plus, make one big batch on the weekend and -- ta-dah! -- meals for the week.

Soup's on

If you can boil water, you can make soup. The secret to creating an exceptional soup is starting with great stock. Stock is water simmered with meat, chicken or ham, usually still on the bone, or even fish. Diced onions, celery, tomatoes, carrots, herbs and spices add even more flavor. Vegetables alone make fragrant light stocks.

Simply add all the ingredients to boiling water and turn the heat on low to simmer for 90 minutes. As it simmers, the liquid bubbles up through layers of meat and vegetables, intensifying flavor.

After 90 minutes, strain the solids to leave a clean liquid. Place meat-based stocks in the refrigerator for a few hours until the fat solidifies, allowing you to scoop it off the top. Use the stock immediately or freeze it for up to three months. If making stock from scratch isn't an option, you'll find a variety of pre-made stocks in your local grocery.

Stew on this

How does a stew differ from a soup? Stews, well, "stew" for hours and have less liquid than soups. Although their main purpose is to turn tough cuts of meat into tender melt-in-your-mouth morsels, meatless stews can be just as delicious, with a variety of beans, vegetables and grains thrown in.

Stews often are cooked in a Dutch oven, a large, heavy casserole pot perfect for browning the meat on the stovetop first before adding other ingredients. Stews can be cooked at a slow simmer in a Dutch oven either on the stovetop or in the oven without scorching. It's simple: Brown a little meat, throw in some veggies and grains, and stew for a few hours.

Chili time

While soups and stews have a wide range of ingredients, chili is mainly beef cooked with chili peppers and seasoning. Purists are adamant that real chili contains neither beans nor tomatoes, insisting that authentic red chili consists of only meat (usually finely diced beef chuck -- never ground beef), chili peppers and spices.

But for most of us, the presence of beans, ground beef and tomatoes isn't a problem; in fact, it's preferred. In the North the bean of choice is usually red kidney. In New Mexico, chili is often more of a stew with peppers and vegetables, with or without meat.

To spice it up, you have a choice of more than 150 types of chili peppers, from the mild, sweet poblano peppers to hotter-than-hot habaeros. Peppers give chili not only heat and flavor, but also its distinctive red color. Experiment with different pepper varieties or take the short cut: Many recipes use only chili powder and skip the peppers.

Veggie delights

Almost any soup, stew or chili recipe can easily adapt to accommodate vegetarian tastes. Be adventurous with your ingredients and explore the full range of beans, legumes and whole grains. To make rich and hearty soups and stews without the meat, start with a vegetarian stock. From there add hearty whole grains for texture, beans for protein and veggies for flavor.

Bean choices include pinto, navy, kidney, black, lentil and more. Consider black-eyed and split peas, as well. Whole grains such as brown rice, whole grain pasta and barley add richness. For more protein or texture add soy products. Tofu has a soft porous texture and subtle taste that easily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients. Tempeh is similar to chicken in flavor and texture and works well as a meat substitute.

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Annette Colby, Ph.D., R.D., is a nutrition therapist specializing in weight loss, disordered eating, fitness and women's health. For information and a weekly Eating Peacefully newsletter, visit

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