Call it the graduate-student version of Top Chef. In honor of National Soup Month, Sharon Bzostek and her husband, Mike Nalepa, cooked up the idea for a “soup-off” – a contest designed to crown the Princeton graduate community’s top soups.

Bzostek, a graduate student in the sociology department, solicited entries in categories such as “best chicken soup,” “best vegetarian soup,” and “strangest soup,” and also advertised for graduate-student judges willing to volunteer their taste buds and vote on the winners.

Tasters and contestants braved a chilly afternoon Jan. 11 to gather in the Lawrence Community Room. The prospect of digging into a hot serving of chicken lentil barley or split pigeon pea lentil soup no doubt helped attract the judging panel. “Perfect thing for a cold day!” said one judge.

The contestants were equally excited to share their favorite soups. Ben and Kristin Topham submitted two entries (including this writer’s personal favorite, pumpkin mushroom). Ben Topham, a graduate student in the chemistry department, said that chemistry and cooking can go hand and hand. “We actually had a lengthy discussion about the chemistry of soup the other day,” he said. “This is right up our alley!”

Caleb and Samantha Cohoe took home the prize for “best overall soup” for their winter vegetable soup, a flavorful and hearty soup made from ham hock, onions, leeks, carrots, white beans, cabbage, and parsnips. “It’s probably my favorite winter soup,” Samantha Cohoe said. The Cohoes selected their prize from a variety of cookbooks brought by Nalepa, who works for Random House. Ten-month-old Isaac Cohoe, however, seemed to be a fan of curry pumpkin and black bean, the winner for “best vegetarian soup.”

The prize for “best chicken soup” went to Bzostek and Nalepa’s green chile chicken stew, a creamy Mexican-inspired dish. The Cohoes’ winter vegetable was also a surprise winner of the “strangest soup” title.   (“None of the soups were that weird,” explained one taster.)

Here’s the winning recipe for Best Overall Soup, courtesy of Caleb and Samantha Cohoe:

1 cup dried white beans

4 tablespoons bacon fat or butter

1 cup chopped onions

3 leeks, white part only, cleaned and sliced

2 celery ribs, chopped

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 tsp. dried thyme

8 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

3 parsnips, peeled and chopped

1 ham hock

1/2 small head Napa cabbage, shredded

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

1. Soak beans overnight.

2. Melt bacon fat or butter in a heavy soup pot. Add onions, leeks, celery, and carrots, and cook, covered, over low heat until tender.

3. Stir in thyme, and pour in stock. Add parsnips, ham hock, soaked beans, and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until beans are tender, about 40 minutes. Remove ham hock, cut off meat into chunks, and return the meat to the pot.

4. Add cabbage, garlic, and parsley and simmer 5 minutes.