Soup's on! Pittsfield's Civitan Club, restaurants, organizations team up to help area food pantries

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PITTSFIELD — When the blustery winds of March come blowing into the Berkshires, there's nothing like a bowl of hot soup to warm you up. So, what could 20 bowls of soups do for you?

Not only warm you up, but help raise funds for area soup kitchens and food pantries. That's the goal of the Civitan Club of Pittsfield's 12th annual SoupFest benefit on Friday, 6 p.m., at the Berkshire Hills Country Club.

This year, there are 20 vendors taking part in the SoupFest including Berkshire Community College's Culinary Program, Taconic High School, Chef Frank, Electra's Cafe, Flavours of Malaysia, Gala Restaurant at the Orchards, J. Allen's Clubhouse Grille, Leenie's Paninis, Market 32, Ozzie's Steak & Eggs, Patrick's Pub, Port Smitt's Lakeway Restaurant, Soldier On, and Wahconah Country Club.

Soups expected this year include sausage kale, white bean chili, smoked crab chowder, maple and bacon chowder, and Avgolemeno (Greek lemon orzo chicken soup). Because the event is being held during Lent, over half of the offerings will be meatless soups, such as tomato basil Florentine, chilled strawberry, haddock chowder, cream of potato and leek, and sweet roasted corn and poblano chowder.

"The Civitan Club is a world-wide organization of community-based service clubs," said. Karen Ruscio, who is co-chairwoman of the event with Nancy Lamarre, adding the Pittsfield chapter, with around 50 members, is the largest in New England. "We're a hard-working group of people who love to go out and serve and volunteer in the community. We're [always] looking for other ways to help and we'd love to have more people join us ... We are just your average neighbors who want to give back to our community through service to others and we have a lot of fun doing it."

Berkshire Community College students, under the direction of Carlton Maaia, chairman of the Hospitality Sciences Management and Culinary Arts program, are getting ready to participate for the college's 11th year.

"We received a plaque last year for having participated for 10 years," Maaia said, adding Peter Giftos, a member of the Civitan Club had originally called the late Jim Lambert about participating. "Lambert's class did the first and we've continued from there."

This year, BCC is offering what Maaia calls "Portuguese sausage kale soup," adding the Civitan Club requires four gallons of each organization or group's soup.

"The students go to SoupFest to serve the soup and we send extras to help out. It's a Friday night and many of the restaurants can't spare staff members to serve their soup, so the students serve it for them."

Tables for the participants are arranged around the perimeter of the room, each containing little cups of soup.

"People can try them all or they can try specific ones. There's hors d'oeuvres before," Maaia said.

Frank LaRagione, known locally as "Chef Frank," a name comes form his years of volunteering as a chef, has been involved with SoupFest for "seven or eight years" in addition to helping out with fundraising dinners for area churches, local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and other any other group raising funds for area youth — be it a sports team needing equipment or funding camperships for Camp Ashmere.

"I do one dinner a month," he said, noting that his involvement with SoupFest began with a friend. "A friend, who was part of the Civitan Club said, 'You do it for everyone else, why not helping us out?' I went in, made some soup and I've been doing it ever since."

An engineer at the U.S. Navy's Strategic Systems Program in Pittsfield, "Chef Frank" will be serving a chilled strawberry soup this year.

"About four years ago, the venue we were at had electric problems and everyone was having problems keeping their soups warm. I didn't want to have that problem again, so I tried different cold soups and hit on the strawberry soup," he said. "I've done it ever since. Everyone loves it. I mention trying a different soup, but everyone says, 'No, just do your strawberry soup!'"

In addition to the soup sampling, there will be appetizers, desserts, cash bar, silent auction and other raffles.

"New this year, is the Feed Our Towns raffle [with $1,000 in restaurant gift certificates as first prize], which will broaden where the proceeds of the SoupFest will go," Ruscio said. "North County and South County restaurants have been wonderful — from Coyote Flaco in Williamstown to the Tangiers Moroccan Cafe in Great Barrington."

Ruscio anticipates 200 to 250 people will attend SoupFest this year.

Over the last 11 years, SoupFest has raised a total of $78,000, all of which has been donated to local soup kitchens and food pantries.

Tickets for SoupFest, which are $25 each, are still available and may be obtained from by calling her at 413-212-6832 or emailing karenruscio@aol.com, or calling Lamarre at 413-443-5530. Tickets will also be available at the door. Reservations are available for tables of 10. Tickets for the Feed Our Towns raffle are also available for $10 per ticket.

For those who cannot attend, but want to make a donation, please make checks out to The Civitan Club of Pittsfield and mail them to P.O. Box 42, Pittsfield, MA 01202.

For more information, check out the Civitan Club on Facebook or call/text Ruscio.

Portuguese sausage kale soup

(Courtesy Carlton Maaia)

INGREDIENTS:

2 beef hocks

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 pound dried white beans, rinsed and picked over

1 pound chorizo, diced

4 potatoes, diced

10-ounce box chopped kale

DIRECTIONS:

Saute the onion and celery in a little olive oil in Dutch oven. Add the rest of the ingredients and cover with about 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat until the beans and potatoes are tender, but not mushy.

Serve with a crusty bread.

Strawberry soup

(Courtesy Frank LaRagione)

INGREDIENTS:


2 heaping cups fresh strawberries, cut

2 cups yogurt

1/2 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

DIRECTIONS:

Blend and chill for 2 hours. Serve with strawberry garnish


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