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Wilburn: So great is soups versatility
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A hot bowl of hearty soup on a cold, winter day is an ultimate comfort food. Turns out, the simple fare boasts many benefits.

Soup-based meals can help stretch your food dollars and offer a variety of quick, easy, healthy eating options.

For a healthy and hearty snack, try a microwavable container of soup instead of heading to the vending machine. Low-fat bean or vegetable soups are a nutritious way to fill up.

Some studies show that, at least in the short run, soup at the start of a meal may help to take the edge off your appetite. This is a helpful strategy to stay on track with those upcoming New Year's resolutions to lose a few extra pounds. Before you head out to a late dinner or party, enjoy a cup of soup to help you avoid overeating.

Try a money- and time-saving tip from my grandmother by freezing leftover vegetables, cooked beans, meats, pasta or rice. When you have a freezer bag full, add a couple of cans of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce, simmer and you have a huge pot of hearty, homemade soup that will provide several meals. You can even freeze some for later. Try adding different spices such as chili powder, curry or Italian spices. You can come up with hundreds of variations of this basic soup.

Many favorite soups are cream- and cheese-based, which can add unwanted calories to your meal. Update creamed soup recipes by substituting low-fat milk, yogurt or cottage cheese for whole milk, whipping cream and half-n-half.

Boost the nutrient content of soups by adding pureed beans, potatoes, pasta or other vegetables and nonfat dry milk powder. Another option is to puree part of the soup and add it back as the thickener.

Skim and remove the fat before serving soup. Every tablespoon of fat removed from the surface of soup removes about 120 calories and 13 grams of fat.

Fat in soups collects on the surface because it is lighter than water, thus making it easy to skim off. Fat hardens when soup is chilled and becomes easy to remove from refrigerated soups and stews. If you are in a hurry, try adding a few ice cubes to the soup. As soon as the fat congeals around the ice, remove it.

To save time during the busy work week, try cooking a batch of soup on the weekend and store it in the freezer. Before freezing, divide hot soup into small containers or shallow pans, and stir the soup as it cools. I always place hot foods in an ice water bath; this allows less time for bacterial growth.

Once cooled, quickly transfer soup to moisture- and vapor-proof freezer containers. Use small containers to allow food to freeze quickly. Remember that soups and other liquids expand when they freeze; therefore, leave about «-inch space below the rim.

Always label packages with the contents and date that it was placed in the freezer. Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator or in the microwave, never at room temperature.

Adapted from North Carolina Cooperative Extension

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.

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