STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Soup warmed the hearts and tummies of more than 400 gathered for Mercy Health Foundation’s annual Soup for the Soul fundraiser held March 14 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds exhibit hall.
Nothing satisfies like soup, unless it’s the collective warmth generated by a community eager to support and salute Mercy Health Foundation’s commitment to hospice services.
More than 100 sponsors, volunteers, silent auction donors and local businesses pooled their gifts and talents in the cavernous hall transformed by soft lighting, fabric, floral centerpieces and greenery.
Third-time attendee Marcia Hull of Durango found the setting as impressive as the food.
“This is just wonderful. They did an excellent job dressing the place up,” Hull said.
Cloth-covered tables of eight, many with reserved signs and colorful bouquets of spring flowers, filled quickly. During the cocktail hour, a steady stream of curious bidders crowded around more than two dozen unique hospitality packages offered in a silent auction. Guests scribbled bids for an evening of “War Stories with a Fogelman Twist,” hosted by Gen. Ron Fogelman and Miss Jane Fogelman, and “oohed” and “aahed” with equal enthusiasm over Michelle Harlow’s “Italian Crème Cake” display and Diane Geraghty’s home-baked gourmet doggie treats.
The sell-out crowd snaked past 14 restaurant stations where servers busily ladled soups, stews and gumbo. Diners helped themselves to a buffet that included bruschetta, fresh oysters on the half shell, stuffed mushrooms and dessert bars. Volunteers at beverage stations dispensed coffee, beer and wine. Chunks of hearty breads were balanced against refillable ceramic mugs as diners returned to favorite stations for seconds.
Some guests chatted while trading tastes of a wide variety of finger foods and soups, including gluten-free selections such as one of Hull’s favorites, broccoli cheddar soup created by chef Ken Thers, one of the owners of Hot Tomatoes Café. The restaurant’s co-owner, Robynn Moore, and her daughter Sarah Moore, served the soup with white-bean and red-pepper mini bruschettas.
Sarah Moore, a Durango High school freshman who helps at the restaurant and at catered events, said the gluten-free soup’s light texture and intense flavor drew compliments from the crowd.
Durango resident Paul Pennington’s first choice was Cyprus Café’s roasted garlic soup, but his favorite overall food pick for the night was the DoubleTree Hotel’s signature chocolate chip cookies.
“Guess I’m a dessert guy,” Pennington said. “This (Soup for the Soul) was a neat event that brought together a lot of good people for a great cause.”
Cosmopolitan’s chef Chris Crowl agreed. Crowl said he was thinking “comfort” when he came up with his recipe for roasted sweet potato bisque with spinach and smoked chicken.
“Everyone loves sweet potatoes. I like to balance the sweet roasted flavor of the potatoes with some warming spices. The soup is thickened with the potatoes themselves and finished with cream,” Crowl said.
To get his soup off to a good start, Crowl selected local, organic products, such as sweet onions from Dave Banga’s Mancos farm, and browned them in a generous spoonful of house-cured, nitrate-free bacon fat.
He smoked chicken legs in a rub of ancho chile, paprika, garlic, cumin and thyme then grilled them to add heartiness and protein to the rich bisque.
His soup’s intense flavor was further enhanced by combining seasonings at critical times in the cooking process. Crowl added cardamom, cumin, salt and pepper early on, rather than merely adjusting the seasonings immediately before the soup was served.
“It’s very important to season whatever you are cooking early and often,” Crowl said.
Most servers still had soup to spare at evening’s end, but few were complaining as they packaged up leftovers and began the cleanup.
“Soup eaten the next day is always best,” Crowl said.
Ticket sales and the silent auction generated more than $74,150 for Mercy Health Foundation, said chief development officer Karen Midkiff. Mercy’s hospice services provide spiritual care, bereavement support and trained hospice volunteers for Durango and Pagosa Springs patients and their families, regardless of their ability to pay. In 2011, 187 patients received these services, Midkiff said.