- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

This soup came about by accident. I was experimenting with frozen mashed potatoes, as I tend to try new products just hoping to find something terrific.

In this case, the potato texture couldn’t replace the slightly lumpy homemade mashed potatoes we love. Yet I adored the smoothness of these frozen mashed potatoes, and they had so much more flavor than potato flakes.

Before long, my mind was wandering, and I was thinking about the cream of potato soup my children love so much. These potatoes would make it a snap to prepare.

That soup is all about comfort and creaminess and the toppings of bacon, cheese and sour cream. No matter the season of the year, it is welcome when you are tired and your budget is spent.

What could be easier? Just simmer the mashed potatoes with one part chicken broth and two parts milk (and a clove of pressed garlic if you like).

Then, let your creativity guide you when it comes to a topping. Add a pat of butter, a grinding of pepper or a sprinkling of sharp cheddar cheese. With a salad, bread and a festive dessert, no one will know this meal was pulled together from the freezer case.

Five time-shaving ways for warm soup

• Saute a handful of chopped onion in a tablespoon of butter, add a can of diced tomatoes with juice, then half a can of milk or cream. Heat, puree, then reheat, adjusting the seasoning with salt, sugar or basil to your liking.

• Puree a can of black beans and juice with a can of chicken broth, a little onion, a clove of garlic and a splash of medium sherry. Heat, adjust seasoning and serve.

• A speedy clam chowder begins with a drained can of clams, a small can of corn, a handful of chopped potatoes and onion, then milk to thin it all out.

Simmer until the potatoes are tender, adjust seasoning and serve.

• For chili spaghetti, a family favorite, cook enough spaghetti for your crowd and turn it into serving bowls. Top with heated good-quality canned chili, shredded cheddar and chopped onion.

• An easy French onion soup begins with a pan full of onion slices simmering in butter. Add a teaspoon or two of sugar, and cook until these onions are browned and caramelized.

Add a can or two of beef broth, depending on the crowd. Heat, then pour into serving bowls, topping with a generous handful of shredded Parmesan cheese and croutons.

The preparation time for the soup is 5 minutes, and the cooking time is 10 minutes.

Creamy potato soup

4 cups frozen mashed potatoes

2 cups whole milk

1 14- to 14.5-ounce can chicken broth

1 tablespoon butter, optional

Toppings: Preshredded cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, snipped chives, crumbled bacon and black pepper, for garnish, optional

Place frozen mashed potatoes, milk and chicken broth in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring over medium-high heat. Then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and let the soup simmer until creamy, 8 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove pan from heat, stir in butter, if using, and ladle soup into serving bowls. Garnish with toppings of your choice, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

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