Over the past two years, we’ve shared many of our favorite soup recipes with you, and we usually include a recommendation for various ways to garnish a soup.

When I was growing up, the only garnishes I was familiar with were saltine and goldfish crackers; then again, I would only eat Campbell’s tomato or chicken noodle soup, so crackers were good enough for me.

It wasn’t until I first began working on cruise ships that I received my introduction into the wide world of gourmet soups. As a stewardess, I was expected to add the garnish to each soup bowl before serving, and the chefs would practically throw a fit if this critical step was forgotten. We would even be quizzed from time to time about which garnishes went with each soup.

This attention to detail seemed almost comical to me at first — after all, it was just soup. But, over time, I started to understand their obsession. A bowl of soup without a garnish, to my trained eye, appeared somewhat sad and forlorn. Black bean soup without the dollop of sour cream and little cubes of ham was just practically naked. Oh, the horror!

I jest, but the point is salient — just like any other great dish, good soup deserves to be graced with something special. An announcement, if you will, that you’re in for a treat. But more than just a visual stimulation, a garnish also brings the final flavor to the soup.

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Garnishes complement the flavors of the soup by adding texture, color, more flavor and/or seasoning. They are as varied as the world of soup itself: you can use diced vegetables like peppers, onion or cucumbers; meats like sausage, ham, bacon; fresh herbs or sour cream, etc.

When choosing a garnish, think about adding an ingredient of contrasting color to enhance the overall presentation. Another factor to consider is the thickness of the soup — thick soups like chili and black bean puree can hold a heavier garnish like diced veggies and ham, while thinner soups are perfect for croutons and fresh herbs.

For our red pepper soup, we like to use freshly made croutons as a garnish, with just a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley. Fresh croutons are superior to the store-bought variety in every way, and whenever Giovanni and I stop by Sarello’s after school, he makes an immediate beeline for the tray of croutons fresh from the oven.

Making croutons is an excellent way to utilize stale bread, and you can use any kind you have on hand, though Tony prefers a rustic white bread. They are simple to make and fast to bake, but be careful not to walk away from the oven as they can quickly go from lightly golden to burnt, and it’s always a shame when that happens. (I don’t make fresh croutons nearly as often as Tony does.) You could also fry the croutons in a sauté pan if desired, but they may be a little chewier than if baked in the oven.

To make our croutons, we take eight- to 10-day-old dinner rolls and cut them into evenly-sized cubes. Remove the crusts for a refined and elegant presentation, or go for a rustic look and leave them on. Toss the cubes in a bit of olive oil, fresh parsley, garlic powder, salt and pepper, then arrange them evenly on a sheet pan to bake in a 400-degree oven for about 8 to 10 minutes. When they’ve turned a lovely golden brown they are ready.

There’s still a week to go before we close the entry period for our soup recipe contest, and we’d love to include your soup recipe (and favorite garnish) in the mix of entries. For more details, log on to www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

Homemade Croutons

Ingredients:

8- to 10-day-old dinner rolls or slices of bread, cubed, crusts removed

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the bread into cubes about ¾ to 1-inch in size, and remove crusts if desired. Toss all the ingredients in a large bowl until evenly coated. Arrange the cubes individually on a sheet pan and bake in the oven for about 8 to 10 minutes until golden brown. Remove and serve immediately. Croutons will keep fresh in an airtight container for 5 to 7 days, or in the freezer for several months.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni.