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Souped up 

My soup pot has been desperately seeking fall. As a native North Carolinian, I know to be grateful when the thermometer dips into the 70s. Still, I want that thermometer to see how low it can go. For my soups to taste right, can't we at least drop to 65?

When it finally gets cool around here, thick, creamy soups--my favorite kind--make one happy cook. While it's possible to get pretentious with soup, as some restaurants do with teeny cups of soup sent out as an amuse-bouche, I think the soups people prefer are the homey, comforting, forgiving ones.

After all, it's chicken soup that we first think of when someone is sick. And in our country of frozen lasagnas from Costco, new mothers and grieving families--those we instinctively take food to--long to cry out as one: "No more pasta!"

Answer them with soup. For generations raised on Campbell's, few things can show how much you care--and often without wearing you out as well. It keeps well, can reheat as needed, and doesn't need any fancier side dishes than some cream biscuits and maybe a few raw vegetables for crunch.

Soups also lend themselves to easy tailoring for a family meal. Keep it simple for kids, but up the ante for adults with toppings, or with a final stir-in of spice, such as Tabasco. Although I (and many kids) want smooth and creamy, some tempering crunch never hurts. In a lightly garlicky pumpkin soup, I sprinkle on roasted pumpkin seeds, or toasted hazelnuts, or a few simply sauteed shrimp. In a roasted corn and butternut squash soup, I give the children plain sour cream to dollop on top, while ours is spiked with cilantro. In a lightly sweet root vegetable soup, such as one with apples and parsnips, a topping of maple syrup-spiked sour cream pleases everyone; this soup can have a touch of curry in it as well, at least for adults.

And don't limit soup to supper: a hot fruit soup, such as the one below, makes a warming, filling fall breakfast, alone or as an accompaniment to sausage-scrambled eggs.

When I read restaurant reviews, I'm often tempted to create a dish at home that sounds like something described in the review. Some simply can't be done with any ease, given the recipe building blocks that most restaurants, but few homes, keep on hand. Flexible soup, though, gives a novice cook plenty of chances to correct mistakes.

To make those filling, super-smooth soups that I love best--and get real flavor depth in them--shouldn't be hard. Think about layering flavors as you go, gently browning a base of onions or garlic (be sure not to burn them), then adding another layer of flavor (such as ginger or spices), before moving on to the main ingredients, such as eggplant, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, roasted red peppers, apples--even avocado. Top that with some chicken stock and simmer until soft, adding herbs or at least salt and pepper as things cook. I generally prefer my blender to the food processor for pureeing, but I know many cooks insist upon hand-held (stick) blenders. My smoothest result, when I have just a smidge more time, comes from turning the soup round in a food mill.

By far one of my most crowd-pleasing soups is also one of the strangest-sounding to the uninitiated: peanut soup. My husband's family traditionally ate this on Thanksgiving for lunch, before their big meal, using the recipe from King's Arms tavern in Williamsburg. I'm partial to Steven Raichlen's recipe in Miami Spice, which, as the book title suggests, gets heated up, Florida style. As I write this, I have a pot of peanut soup ready to go for the post-rehearsal supper for my son's choir--and though I hope they'll like it, I'm sincerely hoping for leftovers.

COOK'S NOTES: The original recipe for this peanut soup calls for a topping of fried leeks, which I've never bothered with (to make them, slice leeks toothpick-thin, dry them thoroughly, then fry in a skillet in 1-inch-deep oil at 350 degrees for about 1 minute total; drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt). I go very easy on the Tabasco when serving this to kids. I also stick with skim or low-fat milk to keep it from getting too thick. To find the recipe for the cream biscuits mentioned above, see my Oct. 30, 2002, column online at www.indyweek.com/durham/2002-10-30/eatbeat.hmtl.

Scandinavian Fruit Soup
serves 6
3/4 cup dried apricots, quartered
3/4 cup dried, pitted prunes, quartered
1/2 cup dried apples, quartered
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup currants
1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches long)
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
3 tablespoons small pearl or quick-cooking tapioca
4 3/4 cups cranberry or apple juice, plus more if needed
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tart red apple, such as Jonagold, cut into 1-inch chunks
Garnish: Heavy cream

In a large saucepan, combine apricots, prunes, dried apples, raisins, currants, cinnamon stick, orange zest and tapioca. Stir in juice and let stand for 1 hour. Stir in 1/4 cup sugar if serving the soup hot, or 1/2 cup if serving cold.

Over medium heat, bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, until fruit is tender and soup is thick (if it gets too thick, add a little more juice). Add chopped apple and cook 10 minutes more. Serve hot, or chill and serve cold, drizzling (or lashing, as I prefer) with cream.

Peanut Soup
serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
4 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 3 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced, or a few shots of Tabasco
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
About 3 cups chicken stock
3 cups milk
2 cups chunky-style peanut butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (bottled Key lime juice works in a pinch)
Garnish: Whole roasted peanuts or chopped parsley (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, scallions, garlic, ginger and jalapeno or Tabasco, and cook until soft but not brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat.

Whisk in the chicken stock and return to the heat. Bring the soup to a boil. Whisk in the milk, peanut butter, salt, pepper, parsley and 1 tablespoon of the lime juice. Gently simmer the soup, uncovered, stirring from time to time, until creamy and well flavored, about 10 minutes. Correct the seasonings, adding salt or lime juice to taste. If the soup is too thick, add a little more stock or water. Serve hot, garnishing if desired.

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