Tuesday, January 23, 2007

While we weren’t looking, canned soups changed dramatically. They grew from plain but satisfying children’s lunches to delicious dinner entrees. Heck. If Wolfgang Puck is interested (and his canned soup line suggests he is), then who are we to say that canned, boxed and container soups are anything but fine as dinner for family, friends, even cranky, persnickety relatives?

Some canned soups need a little boost to make them responsible supper fare. Especially the soups Consumer Reports advises us to buy: supermarket store brands that generally come only in basic flavors, which can be aided and abetted by a few additions.

In minutes, with a few spoons of pesto or a dash of balsamic vinegar, we can create a soup worthy of Mr. Puck — if he were making his own soup dinner from a can. Do you think he does?

Nearly 3 billion cans, boxes and other containers of soup are sold annually in the United States in hundreds of flavors and styles. Two companies, Campbell’s and Progresso, make up the majority of the market, but others, including Wolfgang Puck, Healthy Choice and an expanding list of house brands, add to the blend.

Top seller Campbell’s — the oldest manufacturer still in business — has been selling those little red and white cans that many of us grew up with since John T. Dorrance invented condensed soup by extracting the liquid from it in 1897.

Until the 1950s, Campbell’s had only 21 flavors. Now they make 200 different soups, not just in cans but in cartons, microwaveable containers and 1-cup size portable portions, many of which are ready-to-serve, or not condensed, meaning they do not require the addition of water or milk. These incarnations represent the trend toward faster and more convenient soups.

Despite the changes, the top seller for both Progresso and Campbell’s continues to be the chicken noodle that Mom made for us all. For Campbell’s, this is followed by tomato (which we often eat along with grilled cheese sandwiches, according to Campbell’s marketing research) and cream of mushroom, that power behind casseroles of all genders. Progresso’s No. 2 seller is New England clam chowder, followed by minestrone, the first soup ever sold by the company.

Then there’s health. The latest trend in commercially made soups is related to our obsession with health and weight. Campbell’s, Progresso and Healthy Choice, with its 21 soups, market a range of soups with reduced sodium counts.

Even without the emphasis on health, soups can be good additions to the diets of our nation of the obese.

According to a study by Penn State University’s Barbara J. Rolls, who examines the influences on food intake and human eating behavior, people who have soup as their first course in a meal consume an average of 100 fewer calories in that meal, compared with those who do not.

Then there’s speed, the essence of modern life. Progresso’s soups have never required the addition of water or milk.

Straight from the can, Progresso soups — now 70 varieties — have been as thin or as thick as they need to be since they were introduced to the market in 1949.

Many other companies followed and now sell ready-to-eat soups, Campbell’s and Wolfgang Puck among them.

My challenge was not to take the fancy soups that probably don’t need much fussing, but the inexpensive store brands and doll them up a bit. These tend to be the more basic soups, such as tomato or beef broth or vegetable or, seasonally, squash, without the fancy noodles and other culinary frills.

The results of a few experiments follow. Serve them with chunks of bread drizzled with olive oil and sea salt; buttered, toasted English muffins; corn bread; or heated tortillas.

Then don’t forget to add a wedge of cheese. Or just pull out a box of crackers. We won’t tell Wolfgang.

Tomato bread soup

1 (10.75-ounce) can condensed tomato soup

½ can (about ½ cup) milk

1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

3/4 cup croutons

3 tablespoons prepared pesto

Additional croutons and Parmesan cheese for garnish, optional

In a saucepan, combine condensed tomato soup with milk and pepper flakes and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and add croutons and pesto. Let sit 3 minutes and serve sprinkled with a few additional croutons and Parmesan cheese, if desired. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Note: Recipe can be doubled or, if starting with a 26-ounce can of condensed soup, add 2 cups milk, 1/4 teaspoon pepper flakes, 1½ cups croutons and ½ cup pesto. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Note: I like the bread a little bit crunchy, but if soft bread chunks are preferred, add the croutons after the pepper flakes and bring to a boil along with soup.

Squash and applesauce soup

1 (32-ounce) carton ready-to-serve squash soup, such as sweet potato, that does not require the addition of water

1½ teaspoons curry powder

1½ cups chunky applesauce

2 to 3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon chopped pecans, optional

In a saucepan, combine squash soup with curry powder and applesauce. Bring to a boil, turn down heat as low as possible and simmer until heated through, about 3 minutes. Stir in vinegar to taste.

Sprinkle with chopped pecans, if you want to get fancy. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Vegetable soup with beans and noodles

3 (18.6-ounce) cans ready-to-serve vegetable soup that does not require the addition of water

1 cup cooked pasta of choice

1 (15-ounce) can cooked beans of choice, drained (try cannellini or red beans or a mixture)

3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce

Freshly ground pepper

Grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil, optional

In a saucepan, combine vegetable soup, pasta, beans and Worcestershire and bring to a boil. Season to taste with pepper and serve topped with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

Beef soup with meatballs and chard

2 quarts beef broth

2 cups frozen meatballs

4 cups sliced chard (about 4 leaves)

1 cup white wine

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 teaspoon white pepper


In a large saucepan, combine beef broth, meatballs, chard, wine, lemon juice and white pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, add salt to taste. Makes 4 servings.

• Kim Upton is editor of Tribune Media Services FoodStyles feature service.

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