Cream soup a good meal starter

They are easy to make and perfect for holiday dinners

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Cream soups are the perfect starter for a holiday dinner.

Rich, decadent and velvety smooth, they make an opening statement that a truly sumptuous meal is to follow.

But the bonus is that cream soups are simple to make and can be relatively inexpensive, depending on the vegetable used.

"This is the time of year when the cold sets in, when you want something warm, comforting and filling, with a little more substance to it," said chef Mark Kent, who teaches cooking at the University of Akron's hospitality management program and manages University of Akron's student-run Crystal Room Restaurant.

Kent said cream soups are easy to prepare: simmer a vegetable in stock until tender, purée, strain to remove any fibrous bits, and add cream and seasonings.

Some recipes use a thickening roux instead of cream, or a thickener such as flour and cream. Other recipes use puréed rice or potatoes instead of cream to lower the fat, or substitute half-and-half instead of heavy cream.

The basic preparation technique remains pretty much the same, despite the nuances of any particular recipe. Some recipes call for aromatics such as celery, carrots and onions to be sautéed first, then simmered along with the vegetable, to increase the flavor of the soup.

Kent also noted that some vegetables, such as butternut squash, taste better when roasted first to bring out their sweetness and richness.

"It really adds an intense flavor and takes it to another level," he said.

Some hard vegetables such as winter squash or carrots are substantial enough when cooked to make a thick soup without adding cream.

However, cream soups, particularly when they are starting the meal, are intended to be served in small portions of one cup or less, so that also helps to keep the calories in check.

Kent cautioned that when making a cream soup, it is important to not add cold cream into hot purée, as it may curdle. Cool the purée first, or warm the cream, and "add the cream just before serving, if possible."

Here are three easy cream soup recipes that would be a good starter for any meal.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

Makes 8 servings.

“The Culinary Institute of America: The New Book of Soups”

7 tbsp. butter

8 cups chopped mushrooms, about 1 ¼ lbs. (see note)

⅔ cup finely chopped celery

1¼ cups thinly sliced leek (white part only)

½ cup all-purpose flour

5 cups chicken broth

1 fresh thyme sprig

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1½ cups heavy cream, heated

Fresh lemon juice to taste

Salt to taste

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the chopped mushrooms, celery and leek. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes.

Whisk in the broth gradually. Add the thyme sprig, bring to a simmer, and cook for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a skillet. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Remove and discard the thyme. Purée the soup, then strain through cheesecloth or a fine sieve. Return the soup to the pot and place over low heat. Add the heavy cream and season to taste with the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Heat the soup, but do not boil.

Serve in heated bowls, garnished with the reserved cooked mushrooms.

Note: Regular white mushrooms work well in this soup, or use a combination of white and exotic mushrooms, depending on your taste and what is available.

Cream of Broccoli Soup

Makes 4 servings.

www.epicurious.com

8 cups broccoli florets (about 1 1/4 lbs.)

2 cups low-salt chicken broth

1 cup plus 4 tsp. whipping cream

3 tbsp. unsalted butter

Ground white pepper

Cook broccoli in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still bright green, about 5 minutes. Drain broccoli. Set aside 4 small florets for garnish.

Combine broth and 1 cup cream in heavy large saucepan and bring to boil. Working in batches, puree broccoli, broth mixture and butter in blender until smooth, about 45 seconds per batch. Return puree to same pan. Season soup to taste with salt and white pepper. (Soup can be made up to 8 hours ahead. Cool slightly, cover and refrigerate.)

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with water if desired. Ladle soup into 4 bowls. Drizzle 1 teaspoon cream over each; garnish with reserved florets.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Makes 4 servings.

Adapted from www.foodnetwork.com

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup diced onion

1/4 cup diced celery

1/4 cup diced carrot

1 cinnamon stick

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper or white pepper

4 cups chicken stock or low-salt chicken broth

1/2 tsp. ground toasted coriander, optional

1 1/2 cups roasted butternut squash (recipe follows)

1/2 cup half-and-half, optional

2 tbsp. toasted pumpkin seeds, optional, for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add the onion, celery, carrot and cinnamon stick, and saute until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the chicken stock and the coriander, if using, and bring to a boil. Simmer for several minutes. Stir in the squash, then simmer gently to let the flavors meld, about 10 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick.

Puree the soup in a blender until smooth. (The soup can be made ahead to this point, cooled, covered and refrigerated for several days, or frozen for about 1 month. It will thicken as it cools and may need thinning with stock or water when reheating.)

Return the soup to the pan and reheat gently. Add the half-and-half, if using. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Ladle the soup into serving bowls. Garnish with the pumpkin seeds, if desired.

Roasted Butternut Squash

Makes about 2 cups puree.

1 butternut squash, about 3 lbs.

Olive oil

Peel squash. Cut in half and remove seeds. Cut into cubes.

Toss with olive oil. Place on baking sheet and roast in a 400-degree preheated oven until squash is soft and slightly browned.

Process warm squash in a food processor until smooth.