“Good people! We are three hungry soldiers in a strange land. We have asked you for food and you have no food. Well, we will have to make stone soup.” (Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, 1947)

Soup may well be the official food of the economic downturn-and not just because of increased attendance at “soup kitchens.” As with the subject of our last food foray-salads [Salad Days, Aug. 6]-soups can provide a complete meal in lean times. And, like salads, soup also fits the bill for eating leaner in the battle against obesity (if you don’t get carried away on the thicker varieties).

But soups have it all over salads on the comfort food front. With all due respect for macaroni and cheese (which we will not be writing about), soup is probably the ultimate comfort food thanks to a deep association with our childhood homes.

Soups cover the viscosity range from “clear” to “hearty,” broth to creamy to gravy, simple to complex. You can even make a case for chili and stew at the outer fringes of soupdom.

For some, the “heartiness” of a soup connotes density, substance. If you can’t pour it, it must be hearty. Others see heartiness in terms of nutrition-the richness and the chunkiness of ingredients.

Some like it thin, others thick.

But through thick and thin, the winter of our downturn is a good time to contemplate the minor miracle that is soup.

We’re talking bouillon and bisque, consommé and puree, gazpacho and vichyssoise, though cold soups don’t quite qualify as “comfort food.” Too chilly. And there’s a fine line between soup and sauce-like the difference between donuts and cake. Most of us, for instance, grew up using Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup to unify our green bean casseroles.

We all have our favorites. At the moment, I’m partial to Eastgate Café’s spinach & feta soup (creamy, tangy, with potatoes and mushrooms for substance).

For pure comfort, there’s Old Reliable: the cream of chicken with rice at George’s, though the consistency is a little … extreme. I prefer the avgolemono at Papaspiros. More lemon, less cream, but not as much chicken.

Admittedly, I don’t understand the “soup in a bread bowl” at Panera. Soup surrounded by soggy bread just isn’t appealing. Give me a bowl and a hunk of good bread on the side.

But I’m not really a connoisseur of soup, so this time, we asked readers to contribute their favorites and received quite a response. Plenty of passionate soup-lovers out there, as it turns out. Thanks to reader Mark Dwyer for suggesting the topic. I wanted to do pizza. He said soup would go over better during the winter.

And, as we said, soup makes a good symbol for our time. It shows how far people can get with shared effort and frugality. Oak Park proves that every October at the Farmers’ Market when they offer their own version of “stone soup,” with vendors chucking in their leftovers – a testament to collective effort in hard times. Here, then, is a collective article on soup:

Mama mia, curative powers!

Karen Skinner, co-founder of Circle Theatre in Forest Park (and area sales manager for our own Chicago Parent magazine) is such a fan of the tofu soup at Mama Thai on Madison, she claims it has “curative powers. When you feel a cold coming on, it nips it in the bud. Light, fresh, healthy. The large size is huge.”

Fellow Asian soup enthusiast Marty Swisher says Mama Thai’s “tom yum is first rate with lots of great spices, cilantro and veggies. I order tofu in mine, and it is a good lean alternative to the creamy heavy soups I see at other places. The chicken broth-based noodle soup is also good for a less spicy palate. It is food for the soul for someone in need of a clear but tasty alternative.”

John Trilik commends the Asian soups at New Pot on Lake Street.

Oooh, la la

We discovered a number of French onion fans in our informal survey. Winberie at Lake and Oak Park received several votes, but so did the Golden Steer on Roosevelt Road in Forest Park. The layer of cheese on top seems to be a critical feature. Adrienne Szarmack writes: “I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the years that Winberie has the best French onion soup I’ve ever found. No kidding. High end restaurants have yet to compare.”

Candice Danielson, on the other hand, is taking no prisoners: “OK, the best French onion soup is at the Golden Steer. I am a huge fan of it! They don’t skip out on the cheese and the perfect savory flavor of beef broth and caramelized onions just warms your heart!”

John Trilik counters with, “I had a great bowl of the classic baked French onion soup at Café Winberie. Rich, beefy and oniony broth, creamy and flavorful cheese and browned just right.”

Memorable minestrone

Wednesday Journal’s own Helen Karakoudas has been a virtual student of soup since she moved here from Dallas last year. She, and several others, nominated the pea soup at George’s, citing its “comfort” qualities. At Winberie, “the minestrone, with a touch of saffron, is one of my Oak Park faves,” she attests. Trattoria 225 on Harrison, meanwhile, offers “a fabulously novel minestrone. Some sort of mint made it really memorable.”

John Trilik adds that “the minestrone at Jimmy’s Place is pretty darn good. A classic done well. A bit more cabbage than most.” There’s cabbage in minestrone?

Mazy Miller is partial to Giordano’s in Oak Park. “I have tried minestrone in lots of different restaurants but none has measured up to theirs. It’s a tomato base, chunk full with a variety of different vegetables that are never mushy. Although there is seasoning, it doesn’t overpower but enhances the ingredients. It’s been consistently good over the years. Being part of the “Mediterranean diet,” it’s also very “heart healthy.”

Over in Forest Park, meanwhile, Karakoudas found “a chicken Creole tomato soup, which seemed like a light chili. Not something you’d find everywhere, satisfying without being heavy.” She was also intrigued by the “Turtle au Sherry” listed on the menu.

But the soup de resistance turned up at Gaetano’s in Forest Park: A fennel soup with fennel pollen sprinkled on top, surely the most unusual garnish we’ve heard yet.

The motherlode

Apparently, Forest Park, according to some readers, is home to the motherlode of soups.

“While it doesn’t seem like a logical choice,” writes Ed Panschar, “Starship Subs on Madison Street, has an extensive listing of soups. The daily specials change each day, and all of their soups are available in frozen form. They are good, hearty, soups. I particularly like the cheddar cheese and the ham and potato soups. We often get takeout from there to eat at home.”

“I Love Soup!” writes John Trilik. “No article on soup would be complete without a mention of Paul McKenna at Starship Subs in Forest Park, with over 100 homemade soups in their stable and 6 or 7 available daily.

“Some standouts? Cream of Mushroom; Cream of Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato; Navy Bean with Ham; Southern Style Sausage & Onion; Red Eyed Tamale Soup; Cajun Jambalaya; Mushroom Barley; Rabbit Stew; Mama McKenzie’s Potato Sausage Soup;” and by far the winner of the best soup name, “Hangover Soup.”

Jamie Hogan concurs: “I am a soup lover and when I am without a seasonal choice from my own kitchen, the second choice, and it would be a very close second, is Starship in Forest Park. The variety of daily choices and tasty, interesting recipe combinations cannot be beat. Another plus is the daily soup hotline which delivers a description of the wonderful selections along with a healthy dose of sass. Starship used to have a daily e-mail distribution which was a welcome reminder when it blinked at me on my computer screen. I don’t know what happened to that, but I miss it.”

Judging by our readers’ comments, Forest Park is emerging as the Soup Capital of the Tri-Village Area. Kathryn Jandeska of River Forest testifies, “When it comes to soup that nourishes body and soul, it doesn’t get any better than the cream of roasted red pepper soup at our favorite eatery, Caffe De Luca in Forest Park. This soup is not a standing entry on the menu; it appears only occasionally, as the soup du jour. Thus, whenever my husband and I are fortunate enough to hit the right night, we make sure to order it.

“The soup is a rich, thick puree, deep orange-red in color, with a flavor reminiscent of stuffed green peppers (the ultimate comfort food). Make no mistake though: This soup is for grownups. About midway, you’ll notice its subtle kick – not so strong that you reach for your water glass but sufficient to make you sit up and pay attention. So delicious! Don’t miss it.”

Candice Danielson adds, “Healey’s has an amazing potato leek soup! As an Irish girl, this has been a classic soup in my diet since birth, and their soup rivals, if not beats, my grandmother’s. Just don’t tell her that.

“Shanahan’s soups are also amazing and they often rotate, but their lobster bisque is so creamy and delicious! Thanks, now I’m craving soup for lunch. Let me know if you need a taste-tester!”

And Kevil’s also came in for acclaim: “When I read your request about super soups,” said Mazy Miller, “I immediately thought about the crab bisque served at Kevil’s in Forest Park. The soup has a light tomato cream base with chunks of crab and crunchy (although well cooked) celery. There are other ingredients as well, but these are the standouts in my experience. I always order it when I dine there, and I have been known to order it to serve to dinner guests in my home. I can almost taste it just writing about it. I give it five diamonds.

“There is also a historical story about the soup recipe coming into the Kevil’s (Frank and Colleen) possession but I don’t know all the details so I’ll let you investigate that if you choose.”

Pat McNichols of Oak Park seconds Mazy’s amazement, noting, “It has the full-bodied flavor of its contents, besides serving as a comfort food, and it adds a continental flair to the entrée.

Next up: Pizza!

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