Recipe-phile: Veggies coupled with exotic spices are a sure cure for winter doldrums
For me, hunger has always ridden shotgun to procrastination.
This is why, in 1994, caught between a budding gourmet culture (running on what the Silver Palate began in the 1980s) and a hippie/veggie campus mentality, I found myself hunching over a blender in a corner of my living room at three o'clock in the morning, pureeing squash soup.
It goes without saying that I was not finished with the paper whose due-date loomed, now, just hours away. For some reason the outlet in the kitchen didn't accommodate the blender, and for some reason I was elaborately liquifying instead of just assembling my midnight snack, but whatever the case I couldn't ignore my rumbling belly any longer.
I also couldn't, unfortunately, shush the machine. I remember two things about this moment in great detail: the ragged look on my roommate's face when she opened her door and the bright flavors of the soup itself.
A shade not unlike International Orange (the soup, that is), it pulsed with flavors of cooked apple and fresh ginger. Not only did it fill me, but it helped me to turn up the pressure by burning up a few hours that I couldn't afford to lose.
But the best squash soup I've ever had came in my first year of cooking para professionally. It was another thin puree, this time spiked with a whole bazaar's worth of exotic spices which I had toasted, ground by hand in a mortar and pestle, added to the soup, and finally strained out.
It sounds so fussy, but in the end the whole spices didn't just flavor the soup, they added aroma, which was really more important. The chef knew that when you're serving something hot and steaming, the scent of the vapor matters a lot. And freshly ground spices, which are so much more aromatic than ground ones, are worth the trouble.
I think that you're either a pureed soup person or you're not. I love a well-made pureed soup, a bisque or a veloute. My husband, on the other hand, will suffer quietly through an entire bowl of pureed soup. Somehow in watching him rhythmically string together the smooth spoonfuls I will be able to sense his dissatisfaction, as if he were telegraphing to me in Morse code his wish for a little texture.
So these days when I consider the possibilities for transforming all the squash still leftover from the garden into dinner, I remember to start with whole spices and to add something to chew on. And I try to begin this process at a reasonable hour.
Squash soup with wild mushrooms and corn
Serves 4 to 6
1 large onion, diced
4 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced and divided
3 tablespoons tamarind puree (can substitute orange juice)
1 1/2 teaspoons harissa, Moroccan chili paste (any hot sauce will work here)
1 teaspoon coriander seed (substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander if necessary)
1/4 teaspoon cumin seed (substitute ground cumin if necessary)
1 teaspoon whole allspice (substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground if necessary)
4 cups cooked pureed squash, from a buttercup or butternut squash
5 cups water (or half-chicken stock/half-water)
2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
3 ears corn on the cob
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano (optional)
maple syrup, for garnish
hot chili powder, for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
For the cooked, pureed squash, cut a large orange-fleshed squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Sprinkle both cavities with salt and pepper and dot with butter. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and bake in a 375 degree oven (cut-side up) for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until very tender. Cool squash slightly before scooping out the flesh. Pass the squash through a sieve, measure out four cups and reserve.
Heat a large soup pot over medium heat and add the onions and 4 tablespoons butter. Season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly golden and tender, about 20 minutes.
Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat and add the whole spices; cook until lightly toasted. Grind in a spice mill or mortar and pestle until fine. Add the allspice.
Add the spices, one minced garlic clove, tamarind and harissa to the onions and stir to combine. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the squash and water or chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook slowly for 20 minutes to let the flavors come together. Add the brown sugar if the squash you used isn't very sweet.
Puree the soup in four batches in a blender. (It's a good idea when blending hot liquids to lay a thick towel on top of the lid to catch any spurts.) Push the blended soup through a sieve into a clean pot. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed, and reserve until ready to serve.
Cut the kernels off the corn cobs; remove and discard the shiitake stems and slice the caps thinly.
Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 Tablespoons butter. When hot, add the mushrooms and the remaining minced garlic and cook, stirring, until wilted. Add the corn and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add the oregano.
Heat the soup to steaming. Ladle into bowls and top each with a generous spoonful of mushrooms and corn. Garnish each bowl with a swirl of maple syrup and a pinch of hot chili powder.
Serves 4 to 6
To save time, you can substitute a can of cooked navy beans for the dried beans. For directions on cooking and pureeing squash, see the above recipe.
3/4 cup dried navy beans
pinch of baking soda
4 cloves garlic, divided
7 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
1 medium sweet onion, diced
3 tablespoons butter
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
3 cups finely shredded cabbage
2 cups cooked pureed squash
5 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons minced rosemary
1 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
15 turns freshly ground black pepper, or black pepper to taste
1/2 cup egg farvel (tarhonya) or orzo pasta
grated parmesan cheese for garnish
If you have time, soak the navy beans in water with a pinch of baking soda a few hours before you want to make the soup. (If not, just proceed from here.) Cover the beans with water and add a pinch of baking soda and 2 whole peeled cloves of garlic. Cook until tender, about 1 ½ hours, adding water as needed. Season lightly with salt and reserve the beans in their cooking water.
In a wide-bottomed soup pot over medium heat, add the bacon. Cook until shrunken but not crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove and transfer to a dish, leaving behind the fat in the pan. Add the onion, butter, celery, carrots and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cabbage and remaining two cloves of garlic, minced, and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the squash, water, rosemary and remaining salt and pepper to taste. Cook at a gentle simmer about 30 minutes, until the flavors come together and all vegetables are tender. Add the cooked beans (along with about 1 cup of their cooking liquid) and farvel pasta and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Taste for and adjust final seasoning and serve, garnished with parmesan cheese.