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Fresh ingredients, imagination create some wonderful soup combinations

Whether it's a bisque, a broth or some fancy-pants potage, there's just something about soup that warms both body and heart. Sure, there's a certain charm to those soups from childhood, with their alphabet or noodle stars floating in a sea of str...

Kumquat-carrot puree
Kumquat-carrot puree is an example of a soup made from a mixture of unconventional ingredients that combine for a delicious dish. Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT

Whether it's a bisque, a broth or some fancy-pants potage, there's just something about soup that warms both body and heart.

Sure, there's a certain charm to those soups from childhood, with their alphabet or noodle stars floating in a sea of straight-from-the-can broth. But for grown-ups, living in the land of gorgeous seasonal produce and other lovely ingredients?

It's high time, Kate McMillan says, to make some interesting soup of your own. And it's just a matter of creativity. Blend kumquats with carrots and dust them with toasted fennel, for example. Top a lush black bean soup with Meyer lemon creme fraiche.

And best of all, by plumping a soup with seasonal flavor, it's easy enough to make a homey, comforting bowlful that dazzles the taste buds and nourishes the soul without fattening the waistline.

You may think you know soup, but we're betting McMillan, a San Francisco Bay-area caterer and Tante Marie cooking instructor, has got you beat. The newest addition to the Williams-Sonoma library is McMillan's "Soup of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year" (Weldon Owen, 304 pages, $34.95).

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"Everyone loves soup," she says. "It's homey and nourishing, and the whole point was to really push this idea of cooking with the seasons. When produce is in season, it's going to look better, taste fresher and taste like what that ingredient really tastes like."

It's a view shared by chef MikeC. of Berkeley's Kitchen on Fire cooking school. Soup isn't so much a recipe, he says, as a template for delicious creativity that capitalizes on the Bay Area's bounty of ingredients. His new book, co-written with Kitchen on Fire partner Olivier Said, "Kitchen on Fire: Mastering the Art of Cooking in 12 Weeks (or Less)" (Da Capo, 464 pages, $35), isn't about recipes, as much as technique. And soup is a perfect example.

What all soups have in common is vegetables, grains and/or proteins that have been simmered, sauteed or roasted until tender - plus broth or a dairy-type liquid, such as coconut milk. Understand those basics, MikeC. says, and you can turn any ingredient into delicious results.

"Take roasted veggies, sweet potato or butternut squash," MikeC. says. "Cut them up, flow them in with a little broth to warm it. Cream it out. Puree it till smooth. There's such an amazing array of soups to produce."

Kumquat-Carrot Puree With Toasted Fennel Seeds

Serves 4-6

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

4 tablespoons butter, or less, if desired

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1 small yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup kumquats, unpeeled, chopped, plus kumquat slices for garnish

2 pounds carrots, peeled, thinly sliced

5 cups vegetable or chicken broth

Salt, pepper to taste

1. In a small frying pan, toast the fennel seeds over medium heat just until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a grinder and grind finely.

2. In a large, heavy pot, melt the butter. Saute the onion and garlic until translucent, about 5 minutes.

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3. Add the kumquats and carrots and saute 10 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the carrots and kumquats are very soft, 35-40 minutes. Remove heat and let cool slightly.

4. Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender. Return to the pot and stir in the ground fennel. Season with salt and pepper and serve, garnished with kumquat slices.

Kate McMillan, "Williams-Sonoma Soup of the Day" (Weldon Owen, 304 pages, $34.95)

Black Bean Soup With Meyer Lemon Creme Fraiche

Serves 4-6

¾ pound dried black beans, picked over and rinsed

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small white onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 small jalapeno chile, seeded and minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ cup dry sherry

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth

Salt, pepper

2 green onions, sliced, optional

Meyer lemon creme fraiche:

¾ cup creme fraiche or sour cream

Grated zest of 1 Meyer lemon

1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice

Pinch salt

1. Place the beans in a bowl with cold water to cover and soak for 4 hours or up to overnight. Drain.

2. In a large heavy pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat Add the onion and garlic and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the jalapeno and cumin and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.

3. Add the beans, sherry and broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered until the beans are tender, about 75 minutes.

4. Mix the Meyer lemon creme fraiche ingredients together. Chill until ready to use.

5. When the beans are tender, remove the pan from the heat.

6. You have three options for serving. Ladle the beans and broth into bowls, top with dollops of lemon creme fraiche and sliced scallions and serve. For a completely smooth soup, puree the beans in batches first. Or, puree a third of the beans and ladle into soup bowls. Ladle in the remaining beans and broth and stir slightly, before topping with creme fraiche and scallions.

Adapted from Kate McMillan, "Williams-Sonoma Soup of the Day," (Weldon Owen, 304 pages, $34.95)

Soup embellishments

Even the most delicious soup deserves a little bling. Here are a few ideas:

Squash soup: Add a small dollop of mascarpone, crumbled goat cheese or small cubes of Fontina to each bowl. Carrot: Top with crushed peanuts and minced fresh cilantro; or fresh dill, lemon zest and creme fraiche or sour cream.

Tomato: Garnish with fried basil leaves, crisp croutons and a drizzle of basil oil.

White bean: Add a swirl of basil pesto, or chives and grated lemon zest.

Black bean: Diced tomatoes, jalapeno and cilantro add Southwestern flair; or add a dollop of Meyer lemon creme fraiche and sliced scallions.

Potato leek: Crumble goat cheese or blue cheese over the soup, and sprinkle with chives.

Related Topics: FOODRECIPES
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