For a simple, satisfying meal, consider making your own soup and bread.
Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with chicken noodle soup. Or cream of tomato.
I love them both.
But there's so much more to sip from your spoon on a chilly day — think ginger-carrot soup, Dutch cheese soup or a root-vegetable chowder. And there's no one better to teach us how to make it than Beatrice Ojakangas of Duluth, Minn.
She does just that in "The Soup & Bread Cookbook" (Rodale, 308 pages, $23.99), her 29th volume, in which she tackles a subject that may be closer to her core than the Scandinavian baking books for which she is known.
She praises the simplicity of that most basic meal — bread and soup — which can be found in one form or another in kitchens around the world. It's the meal I most associate with her, one that is thrifty, filling and unfussy — one so seasonal you can use it as a calendar of sorts.
That nourishing bowl has a way of transforming us. Can you imagine eating soup while being angry, and then staying that way after your last spoonful? Of course not. You have to slow down to eat soup. You have to be mindful of your actions or you may spill the contents as the spoon follows the arc from bowl to mouth. It's the "be and breathe" of dining.
And then there's bread, whether a hearty loaf, simple biscuit or crunchy breadstick. It is sustenance at its most basic, and a natural pairing with soup.
Ojakangas has known this since she was a young girl. Her mother told her that, when eating out, she could never go wrong by ordering soup, which would inevitably come with some kind of bread or cracker. That's good advice for the host, as well: Bread and soup is always a winner.
She makes good use of her extensive world travels, whether to prepare borscht and black bread from Petrozavodsk, Russia, or red kidney bean soup with pupusas from El Salvador, or chicken soup and cheese rolls from Colombia.
While many cooks reach for the proverbial "crusty" bread to serve with any soup, Ojakangas takes her menu planning a bit further, pairing individual soups with specific breads or crackers. "It makes it a little more interesting," she says. "You want the two to match flavor-wise and texture-wise. And they have to be ready at the same time."
She makes it easy for the cook by organizing recipes by season. A spring pea soup calls for a bread with other seasonal ingredients, in this case chive-dill batter bread. Curried chicken wild-rice soup pairs with oatmeal batter bread, cabbage-hamburger soup with honey whole-wheat cranberry-nut bread.
Remember the folk tale of stone soup? A poor, hungry man begs for food from others, who all refuse to help him until he tells them he can make soup from a stone, if they bring him a few ingredients. He plunks a stone in a pot full of water and brings it to a simmer, as curious onlookers offer him bits and morsels to add to the mix, which turns into a filling soup.
Ojakangas brought that tale to life at an elementary school where youngsters had brought vegetables from their gardens. She's used the concept for potluck meals where each guest contributes a cup of chopped vegetables.
"It's the stone that makes the difference," she said with a laugh. "We've used the same one for years." Not surprising, given that her husband, Richard, is a retired geologist.
There are familiar soups and breads in her book as well as surprises, though with flavor ratcheted up for today's taste buds.
"I couldn't resist doing fresh tomato soup. People don't think they can do it, but it's easy and cheap. If you can your own tomatoes, you will be able to make it later in the season," she said.
Curried Pumpkin Soup
Lovely when served in a hollowed-out pumpkin shell, especially with mini-pumpkins for individual servings. Pair it with cheese bread (recipe below). From “The Soup & Bread Cookbook.”
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, shredded
2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups half-and-half
1 (15-ounce) can unsweetened pumpkin purée
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
¼ cup sour cream
Toasted sunflower seeds
Heat the butter in a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the curry powder, onion and carrot. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the stock and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Transfer to a blender or food processor and process until smooth.
Return mixture to soup pot and stir in the pumpkin, half-and-half, salt and white pepper. Heat over medium heat to a serving temperature. Scoop into soup bowls or pumpkin shells. Top with sour cream and sunflower seeds.
Nutrition information per serving: Calories: 212; Fat: 6 g; Sodium: 310 mg; Carbohydrates: 14 g; Saturated fat: 10 g; Calcium 130 mg; Protein: 5 g; Cholesterol: 45 mg; Dietary fiber 3 g; Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch, 1 fat.
Peppered Cheese Bread
Makes 2 loaves (24 slices).
Note: Serve with soup, or use an hors d’oeuvre, topped with hummus or small pieces of meat or cheese. From “The Soup & Bread Cookbook,” by Beatrice Ojakangas.
3 cups flour, divided
1 package (¼ ounce) or 1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1¼ cups warm water (120 to 130 degrees)
⅓ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon hot sauce
¼ teaspoon cayenne or black pepper
Olive or vegetable oil
In a small bowl, combine 1 cup flour, yeast, sugar and warm water. Stir until blended and set aside until mixture has begun to bubble and rise, about 10 minutes.
In a food processor, combine remaining flour, cheddar and parmesan cheese, butter, salt, hot sauce and pepper; pulse just until well blended. Add yeast mixture and process until the dough comes together in a ball and spins around the bowl 25 times; dough will be in a smooth ball. (If mixing by hand, or kneading by hand, knead until the dough is smooth and not sticky. Be careful not to add more than a tablespoon or two of extra flour as you knead.)
If the dough seems very firm, add water one tablespoon at a time to make a soft and smooth dough. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour one tablespoon at a time.
Coat a work surface or countertop with cooking spray and turn dough out onto it. Cover with an inverted bowl and let rise for 15 minutes.
Lightly grease a baking sheet. Divide dough in half. Shape each half into a baguette 12 inches long. Place loaves on the baking sheet 4 inches apart and brush with oil. Let stand, covered with a towel, in a warm place until almost doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake loaves until golden, 20 to 22 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.
Nutrition information per slice: Calories: 77; Fat: 2 g; Sodium: 130 mg; Carbohydrates: 13 g; Saturated fat: 1 g; Calcium: 18 mg; Protein 2 g; Cholesterol: 5 mg; Dietary fiber: 1 g; Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch.