Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Butternut Squash Soup

Happy Christmas Eve! Besides being Christmas Eve, today is sort of special because this is my 500th post! That's kind of crazy for me to think about, but I guess since I've been blogging for a few years now, that totally makes sense. I love the progress I've made and I hope a year from now, I look at today's blog post and think, "Whoa, that post is so ugly. I've improved so much." Growth is fun to observe.

Anyway, today, I'm sharing a cozy soup recipe, which I thought was nice and seasonal and kind of holiday appropriate. I made this a couple weeks ago on a lazy, snowy Sunday afternoon. It was the first real snow of the season (re: I actually had to clean off my car) and I was just bumming around, knitting in front of the television, when I suddenly remembered that there was a butternut squash sitting in the pantry. This particular squash had been bought when we went apple picking way back in October, which may sound gross but (uncut) winter squash has a nice long shelf life - 2 months at room temperature, 3 months in the fridge. I mean, that's why it's called winter squash; it's harvested in the autumn after the skin has gone tough so that it can be consumed in the winter. It probably could've lasted a few more weeks in the cupboard but I figured I should hurry up and use it anyway.

All of the versions of butternut squash I've ever eaten, either in restaurants or from store-bought cans, have been really sweet and creamy, which makes sense since squash is sweet and creamy. But, I decided my version should be a little different and have a bit of a kick so I added some cayenne pepper, a bit of fresh ginger, and crushed red pepper, among other seasonings. Obviously, I used butternut squash but you could use acorn squash, pumpkin, banana squash, pretty much any hearty winter squash will do. Neither my recipe nor I are vegetarian or vegan but if you are, you could substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock and almond milk for the cream.

Ingredients [serves 6 to 8]:
2 lbs. butternut squash (or another winter squash of your choice)
3 tablespoons olive oil or butter (or a combination of both)
½ onion, diced (about ½ cup)
1 carrot, diced (about ½ cup)
1 celery stalk, diced (about ½ cup)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
3 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary, stripped
pinch of nutmeg
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
4 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
¼ cup cream (or almond milk)
salt and pepper to taste

First step is to prepare the mirepoix. Dice up the celery, onions, and carrots into uniform pieces. I've mentioned this before but my house isn't usually stocked with full-sized carrots. We buy baby carrots because they're an easy snack (mostly for GM, my dog). Plus, they don't need to be peeled.
Grate some ginger and mince garlic. Fresh ginger is easier to grate than not-so-fresh ginger. The fibers get tougher as the ginger loses moisture so usually, you end up with a stringy mess.
Get a large pot heating over a medium flame and add oil and/or butter - I used about 1-1/2 tablespoons of each. Toss in the mirepoix and garlic and sweat for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are really soft. Stir occasionally so everything cooks evenly.
While the carrots, onions, and celery are getting nice and soft, prepare the squash. Start by chopping off the ends, chop the squash straight down the middle (lengthwise), scoop out the seeds and stringy pulpy bits with a spoon, peel off the skin - you can use a peeler but I find that a knife is easier, and dice into small cubes.
The smaller the dice, the quicker the squash will cook.
This is how the mirepoix should look when it's time to add in the squash. The garlic should just barely be starting to brown, the onions should be translucent, and the celery and carrots should be soft and "squishable."
Add the squash, herbs, and seasonings to the pot. Don't forget the ginger! The thyme can be thrown in whole if the stalks are young and aren't overly woody; otherwise, I'd strip off the leaves. The rosemary leaves should be stripped off the stalk. Pour the chicken stock (or vegetable stock) into the pot as well and turn up the heat. Every ingredient (except for the cream) should be in the pot now.
Turn up the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the squash cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until it is cooked through and soft. Use a fork to mash a piece to test the doneness. Once it's done cooking, turn off the stove; it's time to blend.
Use a regular blender to puree the soup in batches. If you have an immersion blender, you can just do this right in the pot.
Pour the puree back into the soup pot.
Add some cream to the soup and bring the soup back up to a boil. Give the soup a taste and then adjust the seasoning, if necessary. If the soup is too thick for your liking, you can add some more stock. Personally, I like a pretty thick soup. Not thick enough to be compared to mashed potatoes, but enough to be labeled "hearty" and "rich." I probably should have adjusted the color balance in the bottom two photos; they look a little green and unpleasant, huh?
Serve with a bit more cream or a spoonful of mascarpone or a dollop of sour cream or just as is. A really delicious accompaniment is bread or crostini for dipping. I had some roasted garlic so I spread some onto my crostini. I put on a pair of my coziest slippers, curled up with a blanket, and opened a good book before diving into this yummy lunch.
This soup is rich and decadent and creamy and sweet - everything you expect from a typical butternut squash soup - but there's plenty of spice from the cumin and cayenne and crushed pepper and fresh ginger. This would make a delicious lunch for a blustery winter day. It would also be the perfect appetizer for a holiday dinner party. I mean, it looks so festive already.
I like to dip my crostini right into the soup.
If you have any leftovers, you can always store in an airtight container and freeze for future consumption.
By the way, don't waste the seeds! Rinse any off the stringy flesh, pat dry, and then toss in a bit of olive oil and whatever flavorings you want - I went with cayenne pepper and salt - and then roast in a 375F oven for 10 minutes or until you start to hear the seeds popping. At this point, you want to hurry up and take them out, unless you don't mind dozens of seeds littering the inside of your oven. Then, let them cool for a minute before you eat. These are great in a salad, tossed with some pasta, or as a snack all on their own. Other flavoring ideas: cinnamon sugar, nutmeg, cumin, or plain old salt and pepper.
Here's the recipe page for the soup:

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