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Traditional cooking wisdom says to simmer soups and stews for several hours to thicken. There's only one problem: Many days we're not even at home for several hours, much less long enough to simmer soup.

So instead we've gathered a cabinet full of other techniques that work just as well. Desperation Thickeners, if you will.

Any time you cook pasta right inside the soup pot, the starch from the pasta will thicken the soup. Smaller pastas such as elbow macaroni and wagon wheels work best. Rice works in the same way, with the starch adding a creamy texture to the broth. When cooking pasta or rice in the soup pot, just be sure you have plenty of liquid to rehydrate without drying out the soup.

Raw potatoes cooked in the pot also work as a thickener, but they take too long for our desperate schedules. So we've been known to use potato water (the water that we've cooked the potatoes in previously) or instant potato flakes. Refrigerated mashed potatoes work wonders -- just stir into the soup until you reach a thickness you like. Use your own leftovers or buy them already prepared in the dairy case at the grocery.

Today's recipe features an especially easy alternative. Canned refried beans are perfect in this Mexican-inspired soup. Just stir them in for a long-simmered texture that you'll get in less than 20 minutes, start to finish. There's an added bonus: This soup is packed with protein and carbohydrates but has only 3 grams of fat per serving.


Refried Bean Soup

Baby spinach leaves with bottled bottled poppy-seed dressing

Reduced-fat tortilla chips and salsa


2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large onion (for 1 cup chopped)

1 medium green bell pepper (for 1 cup chopped)

2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) vegetable broth or fat-free chicken broth

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) Mexican-style stewed tomatoes

1 can (15 1/2 ounces) black beans

1 can (15 1/2 ounces) red kidney beans

1 can (16 ounces) fat-free refried beans

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Black pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a 4 1/2 -quart Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Peel and coarsely chop the onion, adding it to the skillet as you chop. Seed and coarsely chop the bell pepper, adding it to the skillet as you chop. Raise the heat to medium-high, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Add the garlic, broth and stewed tomatoes and stir. Raise the heat to high. Rinse and drain the black beans and kidney beans and add them to the soup pot. Stir in the refried beans and the cumin. Stir well. Cover and let the soup come to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and stir occasionally for 5 to 7 minutes or until ready to serve. Serves 4.

Approximate values per serving: 375 calories (6 percent from fat), 3 grams fat (.4 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 22 grams protein, 67 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams dietary fiber, 1,576 milligrams sodium.

Send us desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; or e-mail:

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