I'm a soup nut. That's not to be confused with some sort of tree nut. I simply like soup. A lot. If given a choice between a bowl of soup and dessert, my preference would be for soup, unless it's some gloppy version that's been sitting in a cafeteria hot-pot too long.

I love the fragrance, the medley of flavors swirled in the bowl. And I feel just a bit righteous about all those healthful vegetables before me (never mind the occasional cream).

But what's as important to me is that soup is a meal in a bowl, the essence of simplicity. And it's easy to make. Fresh tomato, cream of celery, gingered squash, split pea and ham, chicken noodle, and potato and leek soups all find their way onto my dinner table. The endless variations may be why soup has been the mainstay of fast and filling -- and often thrifty -- dinners for my family for years. There is never a turkey carcass or hambone that escapes my soup pot.

So it was with great delight that I came across the recent book "300 Sensational Soups," by Carla Snyder and Meredith Deeds (Robert Rose, 384 pages, $24.95).

Thanks to this new volume, I'm in soup heaven with options I had never considered: Wild Mushroom and Orzo

Soup With Italian Meatballs, and Spring Chicken Chowder With Asparagus and Peas. Garlic Soup and Pork Rolls, and Seared Scallop Minestrone With Lemon and Parsley. Simple soups? These authors have expanded the parameters.

Deeds and her family recently moved to Minneapolis. She also has written "The Big Book of Appetizers" (a James Beard Award finalist), "The Mixer Bible" (a bestseller for her because it's sold with electric mixers) and "The Take-Out Menu Book" (recipes for traditional takeout food).

She grew up in San Diego, where her mother had a diner and Deeds worked behind the scenes, washing dishes, busing tables and cooking. After high school she headed to restaurant school for two years, then went on to earn an accounting degree. For more than 10 years, she's been writing and teaching about food.

Soup, she notes, is the perfect accompaniment to a cold winter and a busy life. "The great thing about soup making is that you can do it anytime with almost any ingredient. If you're in the mood for soup, just open the cabinet or refrigerator and see what you have," she said in an interview.

It's the stock that takes some time to make -- though it's not that much work -- and, if you're busy, Deeds is the first to say it's OK to use store-bought. But stick with the low-sodium variety, she suggests. (Deeds prefers stock that is sold in aseptic containers -- the shelf-stable paper boxes -- because leftovers can be easily stored.)

Around the world

Soup can be found in every culture, and Deeds' book offers an extensive international chapter. "Every culture is drawn to frugality. Soup became a great vehicle for that. It's perfect for these times. Take what you have and use it. Waste has never been acceptable in any culture," she said.

As for ease, soup has many advantages. "In these difficult times, people want something that's comforting. Both making and eating soup are stress-free. You can't shovel it down when eating. It's hot. You have to relax and slow down. And since it's not expensive, you don't stress out cooking," Deeds said. Soup is also great for entertaining because it's typically done ahead of time, so there's no last-minute stress.

Many soups can be prepared in less than 30 minutes, and few are difficult to make. (Cheese soup is one that can be problematic if the wrong technique is used; the cheese will curdle.)

Canned beans can be used in most soups, which makes for fast work when you're crimped for time.

As for thriftiness, you can make soup with very little. "Save those hambones from the holidays," Deeds reminds cooks. "And freeze the turkey carcass or hambone if you don't have time to make the soup right away."

If she is making beef soup, Deeds prefers to buy a big chuck roast and cut it herself into bite-size pieces (rather than buying stew meat to use in the soup). This way the pieces are her preferred size and the meat is less expensive.

While making 300-plus soups for the book, Deeds had plenty of leftover soup, so she figured out how to freeze it efficiently. She pours the soup into zip-top freezer bags and freezes the soup flat. Then the packages can be labeled and stacked and take up very little room in the freezer. She notes that it's easy to see what you have that way, too.

"By the end of writing my book, I had a library of soup in my freezer."