Table Talk: Brimming with goodness: ‘Soup for Syria’ cookbook raises funds for refuges

January can be a dreary month for cooks and the people they feed. Most are in a reactionary mood from the December holiday cooking and eating frenzy and the air is thick with resolutions about weight and diets.

On top of that, the fields are bare; there’s no seasonal crop to inspire gratuitous trips to the kitchen. On the other hand it’s cold and hot food never tastes better than in bleak midwinter.

So what’s a cook to do? Make soup.

Soups are filling and satisfying without a lot of calories. And while you can certainly find complicated recipes, most soups are easy to make. Their goodness comes from vegetables on their own or with fish or meat plus herbs and spices producing a potful of tender morsels nestled in a flavorful broth. Or, they can be pureed.

The variety of these ingredients and flavors is beautifully captured in a book recently published by Interlink Books of Northampton. It’s called “Soup for Syria,” and its aim is to raise funds to help the 3.8 million refugees displaced by the civil war there. In it, author and photographer Barbara Abdeni Massaud has assembled recipes contributed by international chefs and illustrated them not only with pictures of inviting bowls of soup, but also with appealing portraits of Syrian refugees, many of them children.

The recipes range from much-loved favorites, such as chicken soup, mushroom soup and leek and potato soup, to more unusual offerings. There’s an Iranian Pomegranate Soup for example, a Middle Eastern Meatball Soup with Vegetables and a Thai Coconut Soup with Mushrooms.

Among the fish and seafood soups are a Caribbean Fish Soup, a Spicy Clam Soup with Basturma and a Moroccan Lentil and Chickpea Soup with Fried Whitebait.

Several soups feature colorful (and super-nutritious) sweet potatoes. In one they are teamed with carrots; in another with Jerusalem artichokes; in another with feta cheese and in a fourth with a range of spices, including cumin, red pepper and ginger.

Lots of the recipes include chickpeas or lentils, which make for hearty protein-rich soups that serve as a main course.

The “Soup for Syria” recipes often call for stock — a broth flavored with aromatic herbs and vegetables such as thyme, bay leaves, celery and carrots, plus either additional vegetables or meat or fish. Not having stock, and perhaps feeling the need to go through the extra steps to make it, might deter many from tackling a soup recipe. But it shouldn’t. There are many substitutes. The most obvious is keeping dried stock cubes or packages of store-bought stock on hand.

Milk is a possibility for onion, leek, mushroom and some other vegetable or fish soups. Another source of stock could be what 19th-century food writers used to call eau de cuisine — kitchen water — which is the liquid drained and often discarded from boiling vegetables such as potatoes or carrots. This makes frugal use of something that would otherwise be wasted, as does simmering the carcass or bones from chicken, beef or ham with a few flavorings and holding the product in the fridge or freezing until you need it for soup. But if you want to make stock, “Soup for Syria” also has good recipes for it.

Apart from stock, it’s worth thinking about other ingredients that may be on hand and easily available, including pantry staples such as herbs and spices. Some kinds of canned vegetables are useful, too: tomatoes, for example, and chickpeas and other beans. A handful of frozen peas thrown into soup at the last minutes adds a green polka-dot garnish.

A Jackson Pollack-style squiggle of cream, or drops of Worcestershire sauce (or even steak sauce), or simply a shower of chopped herbs or bright red pepper bits adds interest to bowls of pureed soups that have no chunks to heighten their appearance.

And still around — if not already in your kitchen, then in the winter farmers markets — are hardy local vegetables such as winter squash, cabbage, carrots, beets and onions — all terrific ingredients for soup, beautiful soup.

Aleppo Red Lentil Soup 
with Verjuice

Food writer Claudia Roden is an expert of Middle-Eastern cooking. She notes that Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, was noted also for its gastronomy. This recipe was contributed by Aziz Hallaj, who writes that 450 people a day are dying from disease, hunger and cold.

Verjuice is made from unripe grapes. It was a staple of European medieval cooking and retains its use in wine-producing areas. It can sometimes be purchased in specialty stores, but as the recipe suggests, is easily replaced by lemon juice. Similarly, Lebanese 7-spice powder and Aleppo pepper can be replaced by garam masala and paprika, respectively. The quantities in this recipe make up to a dozen servings, so you may want to cut it down.

2 cups split red lentils

2 teaspoons Lebanese 7-spice powder or garam masala

2 teaspoon cumin

Salt to taste

1 cup verjuice (or lemon juice)

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

10 small garlic cloves

Toasted croutons (optional)

1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or paprika

Cover the lentils with 6 cups of water in a large soup pot and bring to a boil. Boil for 30 minutes, or until the lentils are very tender, skimming off foam that forms on top. Add the spice mix and the cumin, salt and verjuice and cook for an additional 10 minutes. When done, the lentils should have broken down somewhat and thickened the soup. In a saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic cloves in it until golden brown (but not black). Pour immediately into the soup, mix well and cook for another 2 minutes. Garnish with croutons, if using, and a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper or paprika. Serve hot.

Butternut-Coconut Soup

Butternut is a marvelous soup ingredient because it is colorful, easy to prepare and takes well to a variety of flavor partners. Here the main ones are ginger and its relative in the spice world, turmeric. A dash of cayenne adds a touch of heat, though don’t allow this to be too dominant.

1 tablespoon coconut oil or canola oil

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1 medium-large butternut or other winter squash (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into chunks

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

Salt to taste

Dash cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

14-ounce can light coconut milk (plus more as needed)

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro or parsley for serving

About ⅓ cup heavy cream for serving (optional)

Oyster crackers for serving (optional)

In a large saucepan, heat the coconut or canola oil. Add the chopped onions and cook gently until somewhat softened, about 4-5 minutes. Now stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for 2-3 minutes longer. Stir in the chunks of butternut along with the turmeric, salt and cayenne, plus 3 cups water and the Worcestershire sauce.

Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender and falling apart.

Puree this mixture, ideally in a food processor or blender or through a sieve. Return it to the pan along with the coconut milk. Stir and bring to simmering point.

Cook for about 3-4 minutes, then taste. Add more salt, turmeric or ground ginger if you like.

Also you could add a touch more cayenne but do not make the soup too spicy hot. Dilute with additional coconut milk if the soup is too thick. (Ordinary milk can be used if necessary.) For serving, ladle into bowls and scatter on the cilantro or parsley. Add a little cream or a few oyster crackers or both if you like.

Mediterranean Fish Soup with Tomatoes and Saffron

Most fish soups originate as fishermen’s inventions or the work of chefs who have spotted bargains in the fish market and so the exact ingredients are rarely strictly circumscribed, and substitutions and inspired additions are almost inevitable.

Here, you will need a firm fish, a softer fish, shrimp and, if possible, some bivalves, such as mussels or clams.

The ingredient list has lots of optional or alternate ingredients. Other vegetables that could be included are a large trimmed and chopped leek a carrot cut in disks, 3-4 sliced mushrooms, strips of red or green pepper, or a few cubes of winter squash. Bits of spicy sausage are also sometimes added to fish soups.

1 pinch saffron (about 20 threads), optional

6-8 ounces shell-on shrimp

2 stalks celery

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley

1 bay leaf

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon fennel seed, lightly crushed

½ cup white wine

2 cups chopped tomatoes (either peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes)

1 small bulb fennel (if available), cut into thin strips

1 cup tomato juice

2 teaspoons dried oregano

Salt to taste

Few drops Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce (optional)

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fennel fronds or dill (if available)

8-12 ounces firm fish such as swordfish or halibut

8-12 ounces tender white fish such as cod, haddock, or hake

1 dozen clams or mussels (if available)

½ cup frozen peas (optional)

If you are using the saffron — which is a marvelous flavor enhancer — put the threads in a small bowl and let them soak in a quarter cup of water for at least an hour. (If you have saffron powder rather than threads add it with the tomatoes.) Remove the shells from the shrimp and put them in a small pan along with one celery stalk cut in three, half the parsley and the bay leaf. Cover with 2 cups water and simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain, reserving the bay leaf and the liquid.

Heat the oil in a large soup pan. Soften the chopped onion in it for 4-5 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and the remaining celery stalk cut into half-inch pieces and cook gently, stirring for another couple of minutes.

Stir in the crushed fennel seed, then increase the heat and add the wine. Let it bubble for a minute, then stir in the tomatoes, and the fennel if you are using it. (If you have other vegetables such as the leeks and so forth suggested above, add these at this point.)

Now add the liquid reserved from cooking the shrimp shells, plus the tomato juice, 1 cup water, oregano, and salt and Tabasco (if using) to taste. Also add any fennel fronds or dill, the reserved bay leaf, and the saffron including its soaking water, which should now be deep yellow.

Cover the pan and cook gently for about 5 minutes or until any firm vegetables have softened.

Now add the firm fish (such as swordfish) cut in large pieces and cook for 3 minutes. Next add the tender fish (such as cod) and the shrimp and cook for another 2 minutes.

Taste for seasoning and add more salt and oregano if you like.

Finally, add any bivalves such as mussels, and the peas. Cover and cook until the shells open and the peas are soft — about 3-4 minutes.

For serving, scatter on the parsley. Serve with crusty rolls or bread.

Laotian Cabbage Soup

Here’s a spicy soup that kicks cabbage up a notch.

2-3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1-2 large cloves of garlic (to taste), finely chopped

Thumb-size piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 tablespoon powdered coriander

1 teaspoon white pepper

6 cups chopped Napa or white cabbage

6 cups stock, either from poultry or vegetables

2 tablespoons of nuoc mam or other Asian fish sauce

Salt to taste

Add 2 tablespoons oil to a large pan over medium heat, add the onions and let them soften for 3-4 minutes, then stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for another couple of minutes.

Stir in the coriander and white pepper. If the oil in the pan is used up, add the remaining tablespoonful, let it heat and stir in the cabbage until it is glistening and all the ingredients in the pan are mixed.

Finally add the stock and nuoc mam or other fish sauce, cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Taste and add a little salt if it seems necessary. You can also add extra pepper or fish sauce to adjust the flavor to your liking.

Spanish Onion Soup

This is much easier, lighter and quicker than the dark and cheesy French onion soup, and just as delicious.

6 medium-large onions (about 1½ pounds, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more to taste

1 bunch parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Salt and white pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large pan, add the onions and stir them around. Add 7 cups water, 10 stems of parsley and the salt. Cover and bring to simmering point. Let simmer for 20 minutes or until the onions are tender.

If you want a smooth soup, let it cool to room temperature, discard the parsley stems, then puree or sieve in batches and return to the saucepan. If you want it chunkier, ignore this step; just simply take out the parsley.

Chop the remaining parsley. You need about ¾ cup. Add half of this to the soup. Mix the cornstarch to a paste with ¼ cup cold water. Stir in some of the warm soup, then introduce this mixture back into the pan and return it to simmering point. Taste for seasoning and add salt and white — not black — pepper to taste.

Serve garnished with the remaining parsley. In Spain, people drizzle in olive oil as well. Serves 6-8.

A benefit for Syrian refugees will be held Jan. 31 at 4:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main St., Amherst. Speakers will be David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern studies at UMass; Michel Moushabeck of Interlink Books; and Michael Kane of Valley Syrian Relief. Music will be performed by the Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble and Klezperanto. Soups from the cookbook “Soup for Syria” will be served. A collection will be taken for the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation. The cookbook will be for sale at the event. For information, call 256-0493.

For information about the humanitarian goals of “Soup for Syria,” visit www.soupforsyria.com.