Washington Cooks: Lorraine Wallace’s soups cause a stir

Lorraine Wallace knows she can make a mean pot of soup. But no one has been more surprised than she at how fast America is slurping it up.

Tortellini meatball, salmon chowder and Buffalo-wing-inspired chili are three of the 78 comfort-food recipes in her first cookbook, which has remained in Amazon’s top-100 bestsellers list since the slim paperback was published in December. In the food, cooking and wine category last week, it was ranked above both “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and the Barefoot Contessa’s “How Easy Is That?” And for the week of Feb. 27, it clocks in at No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list for paperbacks in the advice etc. category.

“It’s on its fourth printing,” Wallace says. “Twenty-five thousand copies. I’m stunned.”

Her book’s trajectory has something to do with its lovable enterprise — soup for all seasons — and a built-in nationwide audience. Husband Chris was skeptical at the very idea of a book two years ago, yet he grooved the fastball that is “Mr. Sunday’s Soups” (Wiley). Catchy title, and fitting: As anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” he proclaimed his wife to be the show’s Power Player of the Week in mid-January, conducting the interview in their Kalorama kitchen.

“She cooked well when I married her,” he says, referring to the 1997 event that blended his four children and her two from their first marriages. The offspring now range in age from 21 to the mid-30s. Offering a different, quick soup each week was Lorraine’s warm way of feeding a famished spouse just home from work and a son headed for a day of sports.

Her repertoire grew. Family favorites were established as the grown children came home for the holidays. Chris’s famous TV journalist dad, Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” fame, became a fan as well.

Lorraine Wallace, 51, did not cook growing up in Middleburg, but she heeded her British mother’s example of using seasonal, home-grown ingredients. As a young mother, Wallace sought out organic produce to make baby food for her kids. These days, she’s a regular at the FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle. More Sunday karma.

Chris Wallace seems most impressed with Lorraine’s ability to deconstruct any restaurant dish the couple may enjoy — a talent his wife modestly confirms. “He will take me out, and two days later, he’s eating what we had,” she says.

A quick scan of Wallace’s recipes in the book yields soup standards and riffs. Closer inspection finds special touches. She’ll compose a salad to scatter across or enrich the center of a bowlful; the treatment proves to be a masterstroke for her garlicky, bright-green spinach puree. Lightly dressed, tender baby spinach leaves and watercress, bursts of cherry tomato and Parmesan shavings lend texture and wink at the soup’s main ingredient.

The majority of “Mr. Sunday’s” soups boast plenty of vegetables, although Wallace is especially keen to tout her chili with the flavors of Buffalo wings delivered via ground turkey, hot sauce, canned tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese. It’s a keeper for a family full of sports fans who like to eat while they watch games on TV, she says. She also asked permission to feature friends’ recipes she had long admired.

Wallace didn’t know how to write a recipe, much less structure a collection of them, so her agent set up a collaboration with Brigit Binns, a Central California coast recipe developer and food blogger at Roadfoodie.com who has worked on dozens of chefs’ cookbooks (Michael Psilakis’s, most recently) and has 11 under her own name for Williams-Sonoma, including the just-published “The Cook & the Butcher” (Simon & Schuster).

She and Wallace hit it off right away. “I adore her,” Binns says, admitting that is not always the case after intense collaborations that can last several months. Binns came to Washington to spend 10 days straight in Wallace’s kitchen: “I needed to get to know her palate.” She suggested tweaks, such as the subtlety of a leek in some places where Wallace had used onion and the addition of a blue-cheese popover to complement a butternut-squash soup.

Wallace was attentive, yet firm about keeping the recipes user-friendly, which is why store-bought chicken broth shows up in ingredient lists. “She wanted these soups to be pantry-accessible,” Binns says.

The project took more than three months. “I could see that this book would have broad appeal, because it is also about togetherness. And with that Fox connection. . . . I can’t imagine any woman who deserves the success more.” The two remain in touch and have their heads together about a future project.

“Each soup has a story,” Wallace says. “I think that is the book’s real appeal.” Chapters are introduced with family photos and recaps of which soup is whose favorite. Winston, the Wallaces’ yellow Lab, earned pictorial homage because he is a kitchen-dwelling, soup-loving dawg.

“He knows when I reach in the drawer for a pot,” she says. Sure enough, he perks up with a hop of his two front feet when Wallace transfers a small portion of cooled soup to his bowl. It’s gone before she has a chance to sit down.

The space is comfortable and sunny yet by no means a showplace kitchen, with no stainless-steel appliance in sight. Like most avid cooks, she has plans to renovate: “It’s my lab. I need a new one if I’m supposed to be this good.”

With the benefit of hindsight and Internet video, the new food celebrity seems tentative during her Jan. 18 appearance with Chris on “Fox and Friends,” two days after her initial TV foray. She has more than two dozen live spots under her belt so far, and her husband has dubbed her “a sound-bite machine.” The affability and easy demeanor so evident in person now come across on the small screen.

She checks a neatly organized calendar taped to a kitchen cabinet. There’s an upcoming talk to give and a radio interview scheduled for the day this story will run. “I still get nervous. But I’m okay when I’m stirring a pot,” she says. “Everybody can relate to soup.”

benwickb@washpost.com

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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