To this day, I fondly recall that chilly winter evening on December 25, 1973. Our whole family, dressed in our finest, was going out for dinner to a newly opened, fancy 5 star restaurant in our city. It was my father’s fortieth birthday and my first visit to such a fancy place.

As the waiter began serving the first course of soups, my sister poked my ribs, and whispered under her breath, “Look, it is Rishi Kapoor walking in here.” For a split second, I had to choose between ogling at Rishi Kapoor and marveling at the fancy soup! That impressive presentation of the soup has been etched in my memory forever—tomato soup decoratively swirled with cream, topped with crispy, herbed croutons in a fancy fine china bowl. Since that day, soup was never just simple food for me!

Soups have the uncanny ability to fit into any menu. Any soup can be served by itself for a light lunch or served as a part of an elegant meal. There is a soup for every occasion and every season. I like to brighten a cold rainy winter night with a bowl of hearty lentil soup. The steam and spice from the soup is soothing to the body and the soul. On the other hand, in summer, when the heat drains your energy and appetite, the chilled cucumber-mint soup is a refreshing change.

Soups are a boon for the busy and health-conscious cooks. Soups can be made from humble ingredients like root vegetables, beans, leftover meat, and poultry. These ingredients transform a soup into hearty and satisfying entrée. Just add in pasta or rice and it makes a meal in itself.

Soups are very forgiving. A little variation in the ingredients or techniques of cooking will create a personalized soup, rather than causing a disaster to be dumped in the sink. Spices and herbs can give an interesting twist to any soup. I like to personalize my soups with an added dose of spices and spice blends to what the recipe calls for! For example, I add a fresh bay leaf in all my soups, toasted cumin seeds to tomato soup, sautéed ginger to bean soup, or a simple garnish of cilantro to corn, and potato chowder to give a boost to the flavors. I urge you to add your favorite spice or herb to the simmering pot of soup; it will definitely pep up your soup.

The garnishing or decoration of the soup is another vital part of presentation. It can be as simple as sprinkling of herbs, toasted nuts, croutons or decorative swirl of cream. A point to keep in mind about garnish—it should complement the texture and flavor but contrast with the appearance of the soup.

Here is the recipe of my favorite soup. Cilantro is rich in vitamin A, B, and C. It complements the protein rich lentils. For variety, you can replace green mung beans for lentils in this soup.

CILANTRO-FLAVORED LENTIL SOUP

2 cups cilantro washed and chopped

2 green chilies (optional)

1 teaspoon oil

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 inch ginger minced

1 small onion chopped

2 cups cooked lentil/masoor or 1 16 oz can lentil soup

salt to taste

Cream and croutons for garnish

Serves 4

In a blender, make a paste of cilantro, chilies with as little water as needed to make the blender run. Make a fine paste and keep aside. In a fry pan, heat the oil and add cumin seeds and ginger. Sauté for one minute. Then throw in onions and cook till it turns brown. Next, add the paste of cilantro and stir it for 7-8 minutes on medium heat. Puree this mix with one cup of water. In a pot, place the lentils with two cups of water and the paste from the blender. To make a very elegant presentation, puree the lentils in a blender. Add salt and let the soup simmer for 5 minutes. Garnish the soup with a swirl of cream, and croutons

Serve with pita bread or garlic bread.

Hema’s Hints:

Croutons are an appealing and crunchy garnish for soups. Here is an easy way to make your own low-fat version:

Brush bread slices with oil on both sides. Cut them into cubes or fancy shapes.

Toast them in the oven at 375 degrees F for 5-7 minutes on both sides.

Oven toasted croutons are a healthy alternative to fried croutons.

For special occasions, you can make a creamy version of the soup by adding 1 cup of sour cream just before serving.

Hema Kundargi has a weekly cooking show on local TV.

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