Seafood soups are a snap, and good for you

Fresh fish is important. Use what's already in the fridge for the rest of the ingredients.

Everyone loves an easy meal, something that goes together in minutes and yet tastes fresh and bold.

That's the appeal of many seafood soups. Just soften a few vegetables in a trace of olive oil, add fish stock, simmer with fresh seafood until it's done, and dinner is ready in minutes.

You also have something brimming with nutrition without a lot of unhealthy fat or wasted calories.

To get started, you need to select the freshest fish you can find. If you don't like the color of a fillet, ask to smell it. Fresh fish doesn't smell fishy.

Freshness matters when it comes to eating the soup, too. You don't want leftovers, because the seafood will get waterlogged sitting too long in stock. So plan what you need for that meal.

Get creative. Remember that recipes are only guidelines. Though the seafood needs to be fresh, the rest of the dish can be drawn from what you have in your kitchen.

Chef Damien Watel makes plenty of classic seafood soups for his various restaurants, including bouillabaisse, cioppino, and Belgian-style steamed mussels. When he sets out to create something at home, he looks at what he has on hand.

"That bottle of leftover red wine, that'll work," he says. "Open your fridge and see what you have."

You could layer Mediterranean ingredients such as fennel, tomato, garlic and oregano, as Watel does in the sauce for his Calamari Nicoise. His Monkfish Stew, a Belgian dish made with monkfish, uses mushrooms, carrots and garlic in a fish stock seasoned with white wine, saffron and herbes de Provence.

With a global array of ingredients available at the market, the only boundary you face is the limits of your own imagination.

Watel suggests getting the base of the soup together first. Saute the vegetables you are using, including onions and celery, as well as garlic. Then add your stock. Though Watel makes his own, he doesn't discount the versions that are sold in supermarkets.

"Then it's ready to receive your fish," he says. "Or shrimp or mussels or whatever. . . . It's just like chicken soup. You could go on from there to create 500 recipes."

Never underestimate the universal appeal of an easy dish. Simple seafood soups made their way to the Mexican coast and have become ingrained in the diet of the Veracruzans, according to Zarela Martinez, chef and cookbook author.

"In my experience of Mexican cuisine, I've never seen any place that rivals the wide-ranging Veracruzan repertory of soups," she says in her book, Zarela's Veracruz, written with Anne Mendelson.

"Veracruz never lost this extraordinary heritage. . . . There are the many varieties based on European-style stocks and broths."

Caldo de Pescado

Makes 4 servings

3 large ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, sliced into thin half-moons

1 (2- to 3-pound) fish, such as red snapper, sea bass or Pacific rockfish, cleaned and scaled, or 4 to 6 (8-ounce) fish steaks, such as halibut

2 pickled jalapeños, stemmed, seeded, cut into thin slices

2 large fresh hoja santa leaves, cut in thin strips, or 4 dried leaves, crumbled (available at Latin-food markets)

8 cups fish stock or water

11/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1. Puree tomatoes and garlic in blender or food processor.

2. In stockpot or other pot large enough to hold the fish, heat oil over high heat until rippling. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes, or until fragrant and translucent. Stir in tomato mixture, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes or until somewhat thickened, stirring occasionally.

3. Add whole fish or steaks, pickled jalapeños, hoja santa, stock or water, and salt. Bring to boil over high heat; adjust the heat to maintain a low rolling boil. Cook until fish is just firm, about 10 minutes.

4. Divide fish among individual serving bowls, pour broth over it, and serve at once.

- From Zarela's Veracruz (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Per serving: 330 calories, 48 g

protein, 10 g carbohydrate, 5 g sugar, 1 g dietary fiber, 10 g fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 1,030 mg sodium.