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Stirring soup with culture

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Barbara Kafka vividly remembers her grandmother's cooking, not because it was so good, quite the opposite in fact. But Grandma Dora, though poor, always served her food with a remarkable generosity of spirit.

"If one of her children asked if a friend could come to dinner, she'd answer 'Yes, I can always put more water in the soup,' " writes the award-winning cookbook author in "Soup: A Way of Life" (Artisan). "It cannot have improved the soup, but it certainly improved life. I learned from her that a pot of soup is warmth and welcome for family and friends alike."

From bouillabaisse to borscht, soup is the ultimate comfort food. It warms us on a winter day, and most of all, connects us with family, home, and our cultural roots.

Personal connections are woven throughout Ms. Kafka's latest cookbook. She is of Jewish and Russian descent; her husband, Ernie, is Viennese. Kafka grew up eating and cooking French food and since then she has come to appreciate soups of many lands. And she's a firm believer than any meal is better with soup.

Of the 300 recipes she shares, most were passed along from family, friends, or cooks of other cultures. Some can be made in a hurry; others simmer all day. And then there are those that best express Kafka's inventive flair, like Veal Soup With Fennel and Vichyssoise of Red Pepper.

When asked to name her favorite, Kafka balks: "That's like choosing a favorite among one's children." But then she settles on Mixed Vegetable Potage because it's always been a family hit, especially with her children and now, a grandson. "I have met children who wouldn't eat their vegetables, but they all love this soup, and the vegetables sneak in," she says.

While Kafka offers more than 30 recipes for homemade stock, those who don't have the time or inclination to make their own will be relieved by her confession: "I have shocked more than a few purists by starting with commercial broth." But, she adds: "I cheat intelligently. No one knows there is a bought base unless they spot a can in the garbage."

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