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Cooking for One: Stow the study; ask the Soup Group

Thursday, January 11, 2001

By Marlene Parrish

Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 12, 2001) In Marlene Parrish's Cooking for One column yesterday, Margo Quinto's hometown was incorrectly identified. She is from Green Tree.

Publish or perish is the mantra of academe. By the looks of some of the studies, sometimes it might be better to perish.

For example, a few days ago I read in this very newspaper that a marketing professor at the University of Illinois did a study to link people's personality types to their preferences for various soups. Sheesh! His "research" team surveyed 1,000 people by telephone, to ask about their lifestyles and whether they preferred to eat canned chicken noodle, tomato, minestrone or vegetable soup.

Switch the scene to your home. Phone rings at supper time. You pick up. Some grad student asks you if you like pets, are stubborn, go to church and are physically fit, and hey, what kind of soup do you like? Too bad the study doesn't indicate the number of hang-ups they got before they obtained their thousand replies. (People who hang up don't eat soup?)

The upshot of the "study" is that according to the professor, soup is comfort food, duh, and the kind of soup you prefer says a lot about you.

This news bulletin registered just short of hilarious with my friend Helen Worsing, a graphic designer from Regent Square and a solo cook. "The guy could have learned more than he wanted to know by making just one telephone call," she says. "To me."

Worsing and six pals, mostly solo cooks, are members of The Soup Group.

The Soup Group gets together every Tuesday night. They've been meeting weekly since the spring of 1994. "It all started one Tuesday when Phyllis Seachrist, an artist living in Mt. Lebanon, invited a friend over for a bowl of soup," Worsing says. "That was so much fun, they decided to repeat the supper the next week. Then Phyllis invited another friend to join them and the whole thing mushroomed. I came to the group about six weeks later. By then, the full-fledged Soup Group idea was established."

Over the years, several members have moved away and new ones have joined. Seachrist and Worsing are currently joined by paralegal Robin Cook, facilities manager Josie Sheldon and food professional Judy Samson, all of Mt. Lebanon, plus office manager Margo Quinto from Green Tree and tax consultant Janice Leckey from Edgewood.

The gang of seven figures they make at least a gallon of soup per Tuesday. Give or take lost weekends, holidays, vacations and such, that makes about 350 Tuesdays and 350 gallons of soup since 1994. If the soup were gasoline, you could use it to drive 9,000 miles, or from Pittsburgh to Pakistan.

The hostess for the evening decides which soup to make and the others bring appetizers and desserts. "I never throw out a container," Worsing says. "We always make enough so that everyone can take some home for the next day's lunch."

"Soup Group is a great support group for all of us," Worsing says. "Five of us are solo cooks and two are married. On Tuesdays, we network with our extended family. We've gone through the joys and troubles of 12 kids, divorce, widowhood, parents in nursing homes, unemployment, two marriages and various celebrations." And for the solo cooks, it's a great way to try new dishes and be creative in ways that would be difficult for a single household.

Most soups are new to the group, although there are few repeats, and none tastes the same way twice. Some summer favorites are vichysoisse and cucumber and fruit soups. Winter favorites are heartier soups such as vegetable, squash and minestrone. Most of the soups get seven thumbs up.

Recipes old and new are used. Worsing makes an old-fashioned Hungarian mushroom soup from her mother's falling-apart cookbook. But for a birthday celebration she made a trendy Asian soup, Shiitake Mushroom with Thai Rice Noodles, and everybody called it fabulous. Worsing found the recipe in a recently published cookbook, "Saved By Soup," by Judith Barrett.

The bottom line? The Soup Group likes homemade soups, not canned. Their personality types show these women to be diverse, empathetic, creative, social and adventurous. The soup is comfort food mostly because of the emotional satisfaction that comes from women sharing.

So how does this jibe with your slurpable research results, Mr. Fancy Professor Person?

Home-style Chicken and Vegetable Soup

Add 1/2 cup peas or corn or whatever you have in the freezer or fridge. For the perfect side dish, toast slices of baguette or ciabatta bread, rub one side with the cut side of a clove of garlic, then spread with butter or brush with olive oil and add a light sprinkle of kosher salt. The soup freezes well.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound chicken meat, white or dark, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1/4 pound fresh fennel (about half a small bulb), tall stalks and leaves discarded and bulb diced
1 medium zucchini, trimmed and diced
1 large boiling potato, peeled and diced
2 cups canned chopped tomatoes, with their juices
4 cups chicken broth
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Olive oil, optional
Parmesan cheese, optional

Heat the oil in a heavy 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the chicken, season with salt to taste and cook, stirring until all the pieces have turned opaque and are beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon to a small bowl.

Add the onion, carrots, celery, fennel and zucchini to the pan and cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in the chicken pieces, potato, tomatoes and broth and bring to a boil. Partially cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the potato is tender and the chicken cooked through, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley. Before serving, drizzle each serving bowl with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Make a slice or two of garlic toast. The soup improves upon standing and freezes well. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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