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Not that squash soup recipes don’t proliferate now, but I had intended on posting this well before Thanksgiving. Years ago, while still living back East, I was making my first pumpkin soup in my very small kitchen. My mother once marveled at how I managed to cook as much as I did in such a teeny space. You make do by teetering cutting boards on top of the trash can.
I was using a cookbook with gorgeous photography that I bought used in Houston, of all places. I say “of all places” because this was the second of only two good things about Houston. The other was the cavernous grocery store with aisles upon aisles of international food and still-hot packages of fresh tortillas. I had yet to move to Portland, Oregon, a paean to food and great grocery stores. But I digress.
While I cooked, I listened to an NPR program with door-bell ringing and foot-stepping sound effects as if famous chefs were arriving at someone’s house. Each chef announced the dish they brought and then described the recipe. It reminded me of a Three Stooges record album I listened to over and over as a kid, clanking buckets and slamming doors, your imagination filling in the rest.
One chef brought pumpkin soup, only his contained crab meat. I shut off the gas, ran downstairs, hopped over the back fence and minutes later I was back in the kitchen with rather expensive lump blue crab meat. It helped living behind a Safeway. The soup was delicious but it was also the last time I splurged on crab meat, probably the result of a not-grateful-enough family member. Perhaps I’ll try it again but this time with dungeness. But what I have loved every since is how versatile this soup can be with a little experimentation.
The farmers markets, and even grocery stores, are awash in gorgeous gourds. Hubbard, delicata (at left, oblong off-white with stripes) and butternut are all good options for soup. Delicata is my favorite for its rich, nutty taste. Both it and butternut will peel with a sharp vegetable peeler. If you thought you first had to roast the squash, think again. This is easier and perhaps will prevent you from using canned pumpkin.
I strayed from my original recipe and added curry powder, which quickly became a hit. My non-cooking mother has turned my soup into a tradition, making it when I’m not around. We are a family not terribly inclined to tradition. So this, and the fact that my mother largely shuns cooking, means this soup is kept alive against all odds.
Where I start with sauteed leeks, Cathy Whims, chef of Portland’s Nostrana, turned me on to beginning with a soffrito. This is essentially chopped vegetables that are the base of many Italian soups. The difference is pronounced and adds a greater level of depth. She used a few small hot chilis that were removed before pureeing the soup, and then crumbled almond cookie on top, finishing with a peppery drizzle of olive oil. Superb.
My recipe below is a very uncomplicated, semi-Asian style soup. A friend goes all out with lemongrass, fish sauce and other ingredients for a full-on Thai experience. But you can start here and then take it where you will. The potatoes make for a creamy soup and is a good option if you want to go vegan, as many squash soups call for some cream.
Recipe: Asian-inspired Winter Squash Soup
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 t hot red pepper flakes
2 T olive oil
1 1/2 to 2 lbs. winter squash (delicata, butternut or your favorite)*
or about 4 or 5 cups cubed squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 small to medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (yukon gold work well)
1 1/2 T fresh grated ginger
1 to 1 1/2 t salt, or to taste
1/2 t cumin
boiling water or stock*
1 cup coconut milk
Optional: mix juice of half a lime in 1/2 cup of sour cream or plain yogurt for garnish.
Heat the oil in a stock pot and add the carrot, celery, onion and red pepper. Saute on low heat for about 10 minutes till soft. Add the squash and potatoes along with grated ginger, salt and cumin. Pour in boiling water or vegetable stock to just cover squash. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until squash is soft.
Allow the soup to cool a bit. Then, working in batches, puree the mixture and return it to a soup pot. If the mixture is too think to easily puree, add a bit of hot water or stock. Once the soup is returned to the pot, stir in the coconut milk and simmer a few minutes more. This soup is best made a day ahead to let the flavors meld. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Drizzle the lime/sourcream on top and serve.
Download a PDF of the recipe.
Dear Barack and Michelle Obama, David Plouffe, Ellen R. Malcolm, Joe Biden and Marianne Markowitz and all the rest of you:
First, let me say “thank you” for the great campaign you ran. You guys are great. I’ve eaten my nails for you, I’ve given my money to you, I’ve donated my time to you, I voted for you, I cried for you.
But here’s the deal. I lost a lot of sleep over you people, not to mention a lot of billable hours. In these troubled times, this wasn’t wise. But I couldn’t help myself. Spurred on by fear, love, loathing (you can guess which one of those is for you) I emptied my pockets for you on a few occasions, as did many of us.
As misguided as my thinking was that Sarah Palin would go away after the election, so was the idea that my Yahoo in-box would cease to be filled with your emails. I mean, we won, after all. You do know that, don’t you? Yeah, I know the real work is only just beginning. Aware as I am of your vast network of foot soldiers who can’t afford to stop working just because you were victorious, I, nonetheless, didn’t expect the volume of communications to continue as they have been.
A note here and there just to keep the peanut gallery informed is welcome. But here’s the problem, you guys keep shaking me down for cash. Every time I think you’re just reaching out for a little chit chat, I feel used when I scroll to the bottom and see that you still want my money, the red “donate” button conveniently not visible till I’ve already been sucked in. By now, I should know better.
Your online survey the other day was a great hook. Trying to fend off my cynicism, I dutifully answered all the questions, admittedly proud to know you wanted my opinion on how you should govern. It hadn’t occurred to me that at the end you would ask me for money again. To my surprise you asked only for the humble amount of $5, except that once I clicked on “donate” the lowest amount available for selection was $25. Of course, I wasn’t going to put $5 in the “Other” category. I imagined your staff on the other end snickering at my frugality. So I gave you $25.
I’m inclined to believe that it was this donation that entitled me to advance to the next level of your survey, kind of like a video game for political geeks. You let me expound on my greatest fears and hopes for our country. I’ll never know whether it was my donation that allowed me entry into level two of the survey. You guys are too smart not to realize that we want a return our investment. This is more than we can say for the bailout. What’s up with that thing anyway?
So, it was with unbridled delight today when I thumbed through my mail and saw “Barack and Michelle Obama” in the return address–only a name, no address. You are in between addresses, after all. Sure, the envelope was barcoded and form-letter looking, but inside was a thank you letter. Just a thank you and nothing else. I peered into the envelope three more times to look for the telltale donation envelope. Not there. I shuffled through the stacks of catalogs wondering if I’d absentmindedly mixed the donation envelope in with the rest of the junk mail. Nope, nothing. Just a thank you. And for that, I thank YOU.
Now, you got any money I can borrow?
I have a growing collection of odd-shaped foods usually found at the wonderful Portland Farmers Market. Some Saturdays I can be found cooking at the Taste the Place tent, letting market shoppers try various seasonal foods. Otherwise, I’m found wandering in a daze trying to remember just what it is I need to buy. I’m often so overtaken by the abundance of gorgeous produce that I will have made several loops and still have nothing in my bag. A display of purple cauliflower sitting next to orange pumpkins leaves me speechless. Despite my obsession with artichokes, I’m almost paralyzed at the mountain of greenish purple thistles not knowing if I should eat them or paint a picture. Or I consider buying an array of peppers, each one representing a color of the rainbow, all except for blue…thank god.
The “carrot guy” as he is unofficially known, has the most splendid pile of just-dug beets, potatoes and carrots in more colors than you knew existed. Aside from the dual-colored purple and orange ones, these two carrots were my most inspired purchase. (I never claimed to be a poet.)
Perhaps I should look at my miniscule vegetable garden more often. If I had, I might have been able to rescue my broccoli rabe from devastation. The plants were growing like nobody’s business but were riddled with, ahem, worm poo, so badly that I yanked out all the plants. The tender buds were gone but fortunately my rainbow chard remained in all its colorful glory.
But I commend the chubby green critters on their taste. Broccoli rabe, (also known as rapini, cime di rapa and raab, among others) is in the turnip cultivar group. It’s small broccoli-like heads are surrounded by a lot of leaves, all edible. It has a slightly bitter, nutty taste and is a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium, calcium and iron. I have noticed that sometimes it is much more bitter than at others. It certainly has kick. It is not to be confused with broccolini.
I grew up eating it at my Italian grandmother’s in Brooklyn, NY. It was usually swimming in olive oil, sometimes with a little red pepper flake. In all, it was an odd thing for a kid to like. But I’ve always welcomed unusual flavors to my palette. I figure I can decide later not to eat it again.
While in southern Italy in Puglia in 2006, I ate the region’s signature dish “Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa” (recipe below). I can think of few better things to fatten up on at this time of year. Orrechiette means “little ear” and is shaped as such. The Italians are big on food rules, so I never stray from this pasta shape in this dish. If they say it holds the sauce better than another shape, who am I to question?
Eating this dish is, in part, an act of keeping alive my food experiences in southern Italy. It’s hearty and uncomplicated. It also qualifies as a one-dish meal and is a good way to eat a vegetable that might get overlooked. I revisit this dish enough that I often wonder if rabe growers noticed a spike in sales in the last couple years.
I can imagine this dish served with a roasted beet salad, not only for a flavor contrast but also for color. But it can stand alone. Served with a wine from that region, like a Salice Salentino, it’s perfection. A red can hold up to this dish.
There are variations on this recipe, including adding sausage. Most recipes call for boiling the rabe. I prefer to saute it. I found no references to sprinkling fine breadcrumbs on top but it was served this way in Italy and the crunch adds dimension. (In Portland, Pasta Works sells bags of fine breadcrumbs that they make and process themselves.)
Recipe: Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa
For 4 people
1 large bunch rabe (It cooks down so you could use 2 lbs. with no problem.)
1 lb. orecchiette
4 T olive oil, or as much as needed
1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed
5 to 8 anchovies (fear not the anchovy)
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water
salt to taste
fine unseasoned bread crumbs for garnish
I get the water boiling and have the rabe washed and chopped. The cook time for the pasta and rabe is about the same so I saute the rabe just as I am putting the pasta on. Trim a bit off the ends of the rabe. The stalks are tender so don’t waste them. Cut the rabe in approximately 1- to 2-inch chunks. Wash the rabe in a bowl or salad spinner. Drain, but there’s no need to completely dry the rabe. The water left on the leaves helps it to steam a bit.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, add the crushed garlic, anchovies and red pepper flake. Saute for a few minutes till anchovies are melted, working them with a wooden spoon to break them up. Don’t let the garlic brown. In the meantime, add the pasta to salted boiling water and follow the box directions for cooking. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water about midway and set aside.
Add the chopped rabe to the skillet. It will seem like too much to fit in the pan but it will wilt quickly. You may need to add it in bunches. You might put stems in first, then add the greens a few minutes later. It is done when a fork goes easily into a stem, approximately 10 minutes. Add salt to taste but remember the anchovies have a lot of salt, so be careful.
Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the rabe. Combine the mixture well and add some of the reserved pasta water. The starch in the water interacts with the olive oil making a nice thick sauce. Let this cook down for just a couple minutes. Add more olive oil if necessary.
Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and serve hot. Buon appetito!
If there were a day not to go outside, this would be it. It’s the kind of that gives those in the Northwest an excuse to hibernate. But go outside I did, out of necessity.
The first task was a leap larger than my small stature really allows for, across the newly created river where there once was a curb. Within days the remaining leaves, spanning a good four or five feet from curb towards the middle of the street, will look and feel like brownie mix.
Sudden and random sweeping gusts on an otherwise mild day sneak up and render umbrellas comedic and useless. Sorry to the person I laughed at who was thrown up against the side of a building and whose umbrella looked like Marilyn Monroe’s upturned white dress. You see, the same thing happened to me just yesterday. Later a friend complimented me on my hair asking what I’d done to it. “Hair by God,” I replied.
Many say control is illusory. And so, I’ve given over to seasonality not just in the form of squash over tomatoes but in allowing the ending of election season to mark time. It is perhaps the gross amount of time I allowed election goings-on to sieze me that its ending doesn’t so much leave a void but reminds me that I have dining room chairs to be re-caned. I won’t say how long they’ve been sitting in there untended to and half finished. This is one ill for which Sarah Palin cannot be blamed.
Act 2: next day.
A phone and computer melt down required venturing out into the monsoon once again for various technical aids, causing this post to halt mid-writing. Lo and behold, it’s sunny today and will be for days, so they claim. But we know not to be fooled by the occasional sunny day in November. We’re not suckers.
This time of year brings a necessary turning inside to revisit those bits of oneself that temporarily disappeared amidst the urgency of summer sunshine. It’s like the seasonal equivalent of the thoughtful nerd compared to the partying jock. A retreat inward also means more time spent alone, and if not careful, procrastination might continue. So now you’ve lost both human connection and you’ve squandered time.
On my own list are: finishing those chairs, painting a canvas floor cloth for the kitchen, continuing on my mission to declutter so I’m left with only beautiful or useful things, reading or giving away the growing stack of books I was somehow inspired to buy, and cooking at least one recipe out of the 2000-recipe Italian cookbook someone gave me. This is the short list.
Charged by my now-functioning technological life, I disentangled and unplugged an albatross of an old computer and scanner that, I would like to think, signals an ushering in of wide open space. Not only that of the visible desktop (the analog kind) but the mental space as well. Every time I eliminate a dust-collecting object from my life, it is an opportunity to fill it with something dissimilar, something formless, something that’s been lacking, something soul feeding.
Who am I kidding really? In no time, this freed-up space will contain piles of books and design magazines. Already my Obama action figure and his friend the cell-phone-talking Buddah have migrated there, along with a few other things.
No matter. With new seasons come new opportunities, opportunities I plan to seize. Bring on the rain.