I've been in a hearty-soup state of mind lately.
The temperature has dropped suddenly, and our neighbors have lost no time in firing up their wood stove. This means I am inclined to randomly open the door in the evenings, close my eyes, and breath deeply, calming my mind and body with that primal, reassuring scent. A recent drive inland carried with it the realization that parts of this state are already experiencing their peak foliage season. Our house as well is being overtaken by deep reds, oranges, and yellows. Mini gourds lay everywhere, pumpkins grace our table and front porch, we've got bundles of flame-brilliant leaves curing in glycerine solutions for later crafting projects, and for the first time in my adult life, ornamental corn has joined our Autumnal decorating scheme. We're doing everything we can to embrace the season.
Soup, for me, is a natural desire in the cooler (and, as things progress, downright cold) months of the year. There's something about a pot simmering on the stove in the late-afternoon light, filling the house with rich aromas and steaming up the kitchen windows just a bit. It's relaxing and comforting to know that your work is done; you're just waiting for the melding, intertwining magic of the soup pot to happen.
It's also convenient. Dinnertime at our house is not always the calmest, most congenial part of our day. With two little ones (who have usually maxed out their daily cooperation allotment) running around, and Josh away at the restaurant, making dinner can often be a stressful and scattered time for me and the boys. But if I get a pot of soup going early? Well, knowing that dinner is taken care of makes the end of the day feel positively easy and luxurious. You can see why I love soup.
My most recent pot of soup was inspired by a Sunday outing with friends to Beth's Farm Market. The Market is huge, which is especially impressive considering it represents the bounty of a single local farm. I've lived here for over seven years, but had never turned off Route 1 at the numerous 'Beth's farm stand' signs to see what all the fuss was about. I'm so glad we finally made the trip! My farm-obsessed kids adored it. Tractors everywhere, hay pyramids to scale, even a corn maze to lose ourselves in!
But for me, the most fascinating part of the day was wandering among the squash. Really, the place was just overflowing with orbs of every size and color! Many familiar to me, some not so much. A few were a mystery even to the staff - Josh asked an employee about a particularly drab, tan-colored specimen, and was told that she really didn't know what it was or how it tasted. Of course, he snatched one right up.
I was especially enchanted by a jumbled stack of large, pale pink squash. They were unusually knobby with warts, with some covered so thickly it was difficult to see their skin! The sign in their midst declared them "Double Uglies" - obviously a made-up name, as I can't find any other references to a squash with that moniker. I will admit to being a bit offended on behalf of the defenseless things - they seemed beautiful to me! Delicate yet sturdy, girly and homely all at once, a study in physical contrasts. I had to take one home.
When I looked it up at home, I discovered that my squash was actually named Galeux d'Eysines, a prized French heirloom variety of pumpkin. This made me feel like I had had one of those painting-over-the-sofa moments. You know, the stories about the painting that had always hung on grandma's wall, got added to the drafty, cobwebbed attic with the rest of her belongings after her death, and is later found to be an original, unknown da Vinci. Like this recent story. A treasure right in front of me, under-appreciated by everyone else. Suddenly, my pumpkin was special.
All specialness aside, however, it never occurred to me to make anything other than soup with my new pumpkin friend. Funny how some ingredients just seem destined for a particular dish, even before you realize you've decided on it. There is a bit of irony, though, in the way I decided to prepare this soup. Remember everything you just read about how much I love the do-ahead nature of a long-simmering pot of soup? It's all true, except that this particular soup doesn't work that way. It's somewhat backwards. Sure, you get needed downtime at the beginning while the squash roasts, but the actual soup itself comes together quickly at the end, with your full attention at the stove. The final result, however, is everything I want in a soup. It's rich and filling, but not too heavy. It tastes warm and comforting, with unexpected flavors that complement each other perfectly. It has lovely contrasts - velvety and crunchy, salty and sweet, warm and cool. Even the color - a vibrant yellow-orange, like my favorite Fall sunrises - is perfect.
Maybe you haven't seen the lovely Galeux d'Eysines at the markets near you. Sugar pumpkins however, as well as butternut and buttercup squashes, abound at even the most basic of grocery stores this time of year. Any of those would be a fine stand-in. And larger winter squash, such as Blue Hubbard or Long Island Cheese, can also usually be found at farmer's markets through the Fall, and are excellent for making soup. Really, any orange-fleshed winter squash with a sweet, nutty flavor is going to produce a superbly-flavored soup.
At the heart of it, it's all about the feelings the soup inspires. Does making it create a cozy atmosphere in your kitchen? Is it the culinary equivalent of a warm blanket, enveloping you in comfort and contentment? Are you sated and satisfied after eating it? Yes?
Then it's a good soup.
Roasted Squash Soup
yields 4 main dish servings, or 6 servings as a side dish
4 slices cooked bacon, 1 Tbsp fat reserved
one Galeux d'Eysines squash, or other large winter squash (you may need two if you use a small variety, such as buttercup), to yield 580 grams of roasted flesh
6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Cortland apple, peeled, cored, and chopped, or other tart, firm baking apple
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 pint chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 Tbsp heavy cream, plus more for garnish
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
apple butter, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400º.
Halve the squash and scoop out the seeds. Cut each half into wedges, drizzle with 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, and roast in the oven on a baking sheet until the flesh is very tender and slips easily from the rind, about 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Cool on the baking sheet until just warm. Remove flesh from the rind and weigh out 580 grams of squash into a bowl. Set aside.
In a large soup pot, heat 4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the chopped onion, and cook slowly until the onion softens and just begins to brown. Add the minced garlic and sauté for two minutes, then add the chopped apple, dried thyme, and reserved bacon fat. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apple pieces soften, about 5 minutes.
Add the roasted squash (and any accumulated juices) and chicken stock to the pot, stirring to help mash the squash. Once the soup has reached a simmer, take the pot off the heat and use an immersion blender to purée it. (Alternately, you can purée the soup in batches in the blender. Return soup to pot once it's smooth.) Stir in the butter and 2 Tbsp heavy cream. (You may need to re-warm the soup at this point, if it has lost too much heat.) Season with salt and pepper.
Ladle into bowls, and garnish with crumbled pieces of bacon, dollops of apple butter, and a swirl of heavy cream.
A photo from this post has been submitted to the GF Photo Contest, which can be found here: http://simplygluten-free.