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Make squash the star of the show

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Make squash the star of the show
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

My mom always used to tell me that the best cooks create delicious meals without using a recipe. That's how her mother cooked and that's how my mom learned to cook. Try as I might to use my creativity and imagination in the kitchen, I needed exact measurements in front of me as I tossed together a meatloaf, prepared a casserole or put a pot of chicken soup on the stove to cook. I even used a recipe to make scrambled eggs. My mom would just shake her head and smile.

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Finally, though, after discovering flavor combinations that work, experimenting with a variety of ingredients and allowing my creativity to take over, there are some things I can confidently turn out without using a recipe. Soup is one of those things.

Winter squash, which are really at their best in the late summer and fall, soon after harvest, have found their place at the farmers' markets and grocery stores. They are delicious roasted. And when that roasted squash is spooned into a soup pot with a few other ingredients, it becomes the star of the show.

With just a few ingredients, Roasted Squash Soup is full of satisfying flavor. The variety of winter squash you select to use for this Roasted Squash Soup will make a difference in its consistency. I chose a kabocha, a squat, round squash with deep green outer skin. The dark orange flesh is dense, meaty and very sweet, with a more pronounced squash flavor than butternut or acorn. A heavy knife is required to cut through its tough exterior, which allows the squash to keep well for a month or more when stored in a cool, dry, dark place. Kabochas can be found in most grocery stores these days, and at natural food co-ops and farmers' markets, but if you have some butternuts or buttercups in your garden, they will also work well in this soup. Acorn squash holds much more moisture and doesn't have the nice deep squash flavor of the others, so I would avoid using them for this soup.

Fresh herbs and juicy cloves of garlic are tucked under each squash half, sharing fragrance and flavor with the squash as it roasts. The squash can be roasted on a chilly morning when you want to warm up the kitchen or on an evening when you're tempted to get the fire going. The roasted flesh can be scooped out and stored in the refrigerator along with the garlic for a day or two. The soft and mellow-flavored roasted cloves of garlic are squeezed into the soup pot.

As you sauté onion and carrots, add celery if you like. How about some chopped apple or maybe a turnip? Don't care for the flavor of thyme? Try some sage leaves or small sprigs of fresh rosemary. Once you've pureed the soup mixture, if you need to add more liquid to get the consistency you prefer, add more broth or try some apple cider. The smoother the soup, the more elegant it appears. I favor a more rustic look, with visible bits of carrots peeking through the silky, golden squash.

Sprinkle each serving of soup with your favorite croutons. You'd be surprised at how much more willing your children will be to try the soup when there is some popped corn sprinkled over the top.

If you're like me, you'll make the soup the first time with the recipe close by. After that, you'll never need the recipe again. You'll incorporate the flavors you love to make a Roasted Squash Soup you can call your own. And everyone who eats it will call you the best cook in the world.

Roasted Squash Soup

1 winter squash, about 3 pounds

Coarse salt and fresh ground black pepper

4 chubby cloves of garlic

2 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrots

1 bay leaf

4 cups vegetable broth

Carefully cut the squash in half. Clean out the seeds and strings. Use 1 tablespoon of olive oil to rub the cut side of each half. Sprinkle with salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Push sprigs of fresh thyme into the cavity of each half. Lay the halves, cut side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Tuck 2 unpeeled cloves of garlic under each half. Bake at 350 degrees until a fork pokes through the skin into soft, tender flesh.

In a 3- to 4-quart pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and carrots and sauté until onions become translucent. Add bay leaf and vegetable broth to pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover pot and simmer until carrots are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Spoon roasted squash into the soup pot. You should have about 3 cups of squash. Squeeze in the cloves of roasted garlic. Discard the thyme. Stir the mixture over medium heat until it is very hot. Remove and discard bay leaf. Puree soup in batches in blender or food processor or puree in the pot with an immersion blender. Stop the processing when it becomes the consistency you desire. Season with salt and pepper. Serve piping hot. Makes 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--I find that a grapefruit spoon works well for scraping the seeds and stringy fibers out of the squash. The seeds can be washed, drained and allowed to dry on paper towels. Toss the dry seeds with a little canola oil and your favorite seasoning (chili powder is good). Spread them out on a baking sheet and roast them in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Sprinkle the roasted seeds with salt. Eat them as a snack or scatter them over servings of Roasted Squash Soup.

--If using a blender to puree the soup, hold a towel over the top of the lid of the blender to prevent hot soup from splashing out.

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