How pots of soup can grow a community

Special To The Washington Post

Lamb and lentil soup with lamb meatballs makes a hearty one-pot meal; serve with crusty bread.
Lamb and lentil soup with lamb meatballs makes a hearty one-pot meal; serve with crusty bread. The Washington Post

I’m not a huge fan of potlucks. I know they are all the rage, but I just don’t get it. When I’m invited to dinner or to a party, I like to be served food that someone else has cooked. I figure it’s my night off from the kitchen.

So six years ago, when my friend Hope called proposing that a bunch of neighbors and friends spend the winter holding soup swap parties, I thought “No way!” before she even had a chance to explain the concept.

She was persuasive. “I love making a big pot of soup,” she began, “but I don’t love eating the same soup all week long. What if one person hosted a gathering and made a side dish, bread and dessert, and everyone else brought a pot of their favorite soup? We have a party, and then we all go home with a variety of leftover soups to eat the rest of the week.”

Hmm. Despite myself, I had to admit I kind of liked the idea. I cook one pot of soup, get to go to a party, and leave with a week’s worth of homemade soups.

The Second Sunday Soup Swap Suppers were born six winters ago in the small Maine town where I live. Hope chose six couples who love to cook. Every month during the long, snow-filled winter we got together, each time at a different home, and had a soup swap party. Some of us were neighbors and friends, some merely acquaintances, but over the course of six winters we became close. Soup brought us together.

Each soup swap party started with everyone introducing what they had brought.

“Hello, my name is Rebecca, and I went to the indoor winter farmers market on Saturday and found root vegetables and gorgeous organic rosemary and made my favorite childhood soup.”

“This is the matzoh ball soup my mother made every Passover.”

“My grandmother made this chestnut soup every Christmas.”

The first few times we got together, the soups were delicious but not particularly adventurous: chicken noodle, tomato bisque, lots of purees. But as the months and years passed, the soups became increasingly sophisticated. Soon enough, we would hear: “I tasted this noodle soup on a recent trip to Vietnam, where it was served at a stall at a night street market.”

People traveled for work and vacation, and in addition to bringing home souvenirs, they returned with soup recipes and with the exotic spices and other ingredients with which to make them.

Within a year, the soups began to reflect a far more adventurous spirit: Thai red curry noodle soup; Scottish smoked haddock and leek chowder; Indian mulligatawny; corn and sweet potato chowder.

Had we all turned into master soupmakers? Or was it that as we got to know one another better, we wanted to challenge and please everyone with ever-more-interesting soups?

What the soup swap parties taught us is that the simple act of making soup and sharing it with others is a great way to build a community. You don’t need to live in a small town. Soup swaps work just as well in urban neighborhoods, and with relatives, parent-teacher organizations, yoga classes, book clubs - you name it. The key is to start with a small group of people who love food and enjoy cooking. You’ll be amazed at how relationships deepen and grow, one pot of soup at a time.

Lamb and lentil soup with lamb meatballs

Serves 8 as a main course or 12 as an appetizer; makes 8 cups total

The author uses the bone left over from a roasted leg of lamb or lamb chops to help flavor this soup; we tested it with roasted chicken stock and were pleased with the results. If you’re packing this soup to go, stash the parsley and cheese toppings and the meatballs in separate containers.

Make ahead: The stock can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 4 months.

Adapted from “Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share,” by Kathy Gunst (Chronicle Books, $24.95, 176 pages).

For the soup:

1 large leek

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large clove garlic, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 medium carrots, scrubbed well and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup brown lentils, rinsed and picked over

1 cup canned no-salt-added crushed tomatoes, with their juice

6 cups chicken stock, homemade or commercial

1/2 cup packed chopped fresh parsley

For the meatballs:

12 ounces ground lamb

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 large egg

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheese

1/2 cup plain dried panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil

For serving:

1/2 cup packed finely chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the soup: Trim off the dark-green section from the leek; reserve for making vegetable broth, if you like. Halve the pale-green-and-white section lengthwise. Rinse under cold running water, pat dry and cut crosswise into thin pieces.

Warm the olive oil in a large stockpot over low heat. Add the leek and garlic; cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, then add half the rosemary and half the thyme, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Add the carrots and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the lentils and the tomatoes with their juices, stirring until all the ingredients in the pot are coated. Increase the heat to high, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and add the remaining rosemary and remaining thyme and the parsley. Partially cover and cook for 45 minutes.

For the meatballs: Meanwhile, line a plate with paper towels.

Combine the ground lamb, garlic, rosemary, thyme, egg, cheese, panko and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Use your clean hands to mix the ingredients and form them into about 30 small meatballs.

Heat the olive oil with the canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oils are shimmering, add the meatballs in batches and cook for about 5 minutes each time, rolling them around in the hot skillet, until evenly browned. (They will not be cooked through.) Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the plate.

After the soup has cooked for 45 minutes, add the browned meatballs. Cover and cook for 30 to 45 minutes or until the lentils and carrots are tender and the meatballs are cooked through. Taste, and add more salt and/or pepper as needed. If the soup tastes weak, uncover and cook over medium heat for 10 more minutes.

Ladle the soup into mugs or bowls, sprinkle with the parsley and/or the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve.

Per serving (based on 8): 330 calories, 19 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 560 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Corn and sweet potato chowder with saffron cream

Serves 6 as a main course or 10 as an appetizer; makes 11 1/2 cups

Here, fresh corn and sweet potatoes make a good team. Together with the saffron, they turn the broth in this chowder a gorgeous sunflower yellow. Frozen corn can be used if fresh is not available; skip the part about the corncobs.

Adapted from “Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share,” by Kathy Gunst (Chronicle Books, $24.95, 176 pages).

6 large ears fresh corn or 5 cups frozen corn kernels

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 large yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch squares

1 small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch squares

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch squares

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon flour

4 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth

3/4 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads

2 scallions (trimmed), white and green parts very thinly sliced

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

If you’re using fresh corn, shuck the ears, discard the silks and trim off the ends so you can stand the cob flat. Working with one at a time, stand each cob on its end inside a large bowl; use a sharp knife to remove the kernels by working the blade straight down against the cob. Use the blunt side of the knife to then scrape down the cob; this will help release any milky corn liquid. Stir that liquid and the corn together. Reserve the spent cobs.

Warm the oil in a large stockpot over medium-low heat. Stir in the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes or until translucent. Add half the yellow bell pepper and half the red bell pepper, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the sweet potato, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring well to coat all the vegetables, for 2 minutes. Increase the heat to high; gently whisk in the broth and bring to a boil. Add the corncobs (not the corn kernels). Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 5 to 8 minutes or until the potato is almost tender.

Combine the cream and saffron in a small saucepan over low heat; once the mixture is warmed through, stir it and let it steep (off the heat) for 5 minutes.

Add the saffron cream, corn kernels and corn milk to the stockpot; cook for 5 minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed. Use tongs to remove the cobs from the pot; holding each one over the pot, use a knife to scrape off any bits of chowder or corn clinging to the cob.

Ladle the chowder into mugs or bowls; sprinkle with the scallions, chives and the remaining red and yellow bell peppers, then serve.

Per serving (based on 6): 310 calories, 6 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar