Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Squash soup framework recipe

I've decided that you can't really ever go wrong when making a pureed squash soup.  Making one is a piece of cake, and they are infinitely adaptable to a variety of seasonings and supporting actors... whatever is lying around your fridge/pantry.  This is my framework recipe for a killer squash soup.  With the time savers noted, it only takes about 45 min. start to finish, including chopping.  The only special equipment I really recommend is an immersion blender... there's a nice looking Cuisinart model on for $29 (almost 50% off), and a 4 out of 5 stars Proctor Silex for only $13!  Can't personally vouch for them though, the one I use was a gift from Andy's grandmother, I think she got it from QVC - it's actually great!  I use it almost exclusively for soups, but all kinds: black bean, potato, carrot... and I think it's worth having for sure.  This write-up got really long really fast ... so consider it a primer... you can read it once, carefully, and you will always know how to make squash soup because it's so forgiving.  You can't mess this one up.

Ingredients - again I'm going with a framework, not a true recipe, so I'm not giving real measurements...
-1 medium to large squash or pumpkin (butternut, turban, rouge d'etamps, acorn, pie pumpkins, pretty much anything works except spaghetti squash)
-Liquid: stock, water, diluted apple or orange juice or cider, coconut milk, or a combination of these
-Fat: If you are watching your figure, you hardly need any!  But some amount of fat will give a nice flavor and mouth-feel.  Candidates include (again your choice depends on your overall flavor scheme!): butter, ghee, olive oil, peanut oil, plain old canola or veggie oil, bacon or duck fat if you want to get meaty and fancy!
-Aromatics: the equivalent of 1 large onion, could be a combination of leeks, shallots, onions, scallions, garlic...
-Supporting players: here's where we start to get creative... from 2-4 cups of things that taste good with squash: mushrooms, apples, pears, carrots, celery, peppers, spinach... depending on your choices you will probably only want one or two, maybe three, of these things.  Or zero would be fine too.
-Seasonings: Almost anything goes.  You could do a medley of "warm" spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, chiles, and cumin, a plain or fancy curry or garam masala powder, a traditional rosemary and thyme.  Fresh herbs would be great too: cilantro or parsley for sure, oregano, thyme and sage are classics, even dill, mint, or basil I think would work.  I can even see a "chai" spiced version with ginger, vanilla, and cardamon (although might want to put the ginger in with the onions if it's fresh).  If you're finding salt boring lately, you could even substitute soy sauce, nuoc mam, or Worcestorshire sauce for some new flavors.
-Add-ons:  (optional) swirl in some cream or half and half, creme fraiche, sour cream, yogurt at the end, garnish with homemade croutons (with or without cheese), olive oil toasted bread crumbs, sprinkle some roasted pumpkin or squash seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans or walnuts, pine nuts, or grate some parmesan or gruyere right into the bowl.  Heck, throw in some bacon, sausage, small white beans, smoked or roasted poultry... (personally I would put these in after pureeing but you might disagree.)

See the notes on step 1 method comparison (*) and step 3 method alternative (**) below the recipe.

1.  (a) Peel and cube the squash OR (b) cut it in half, remove seeds, spread some oil on the flesh and roast in a 400 degree oven till soft (~1 hour) OR (c) cut in half, remove seeds, place in microwave safe casserole dish cut side down with 1/4 inch water, cover (plastic wrap is fine, pricked) and microwave for 12 minutes on high or until soft (may require more time depending on microwave and size/type of squash.*  
2.  Transfer squash chunks to stock pot, or if using methods b or c, scoop flesh into stock pot.  Cover with liquid by an inch or two (a little more if you use methods b or c because it will have a smaller volume), and bring to a boil.  If the squash is raw, it will need at least 20 minutes to soften, if cooked, it will need only about 5 minutes to soften a little more and for the flavors to meld.  Overcooking it is not really a problem since we will be pureeing.
3.  Meanwhile, heat up a sautee pan with medium heat, throw in the fat, and start sauteeing the aromatics.  If you're using spices that benefit from a little hot oil exposure (chiles, cumin come to mind, just not any of the green herbs, especially if they're fresh) put them in now too.  Throw in the supporting players when appropriate (carrots could go in right away, mushrooms or apples a bit later, but again, since we're pureeing, the texture of the sautee is negotiable, it's more to develop some browning reaction flavors.** 
4.  Once you've got some nice browning, scrape into the stock pot.  Now, immerse the immersion blender, and blend to your desired texture.  Some like it a little chunkier, some like it a little smoother.  You may want to add more liquid too, depending on your thickness preference.
5.  Add desired seasonings, salt, and pepper to taste.  Stir in add-ons or add them at the table.

* Method a pros: it's probably the quickest.  Cons: peeling and cutting the squash can make your hand hurt.  Method b pros: develops a nice flavor, avoids the cutting and peeling hassle.  Cons: takes the longest.  Method c pros: also avoids hand pain, rivals method a for speed, but probably takes a little longer cause the squash has to cool a little before you can scoop.  Cons: an extra dish gets dirty?  Really there's not much to dislike about the microwave method since the times are pretty close.
** Alternatively, for an even easier preparation, instead of sauteing, you could boil the aromatics and supporting players with the squash.  You lose some flavor, but avoid having to stir the saute and washing the saute pan, and if you go this route, you can completely skip the fat if you want.

The soup that inspired this post followed the method exactly, here were my choices:
Squash: 1 large butternut
Liquid: Turkey stock from the Thanksgiving carcass, diluted a bit.
Fat: butter, a good 2 or 3 T.
Aromatics: a few shallots, and 5 or 6 cloves of garlic.  Did I put some leeks in too?  Maybe, can't remember.
Supporting players: About 6 ozs. fresh cremini mushrooms
Seasonings: A simple combo: dry rosemary and thyme.  I would go with powdered or ground rosemary, whole leaves might be a little tough.  Salt and pepper.
Add-ons: Some grated gruyere, leftover from a different squash soup I made for Thanksgiving!

The soup I made for Thanksgiving was from Epicurious, but basically followed the same formula.  For this soup I used one rouge d'etamps squash (instead of butternut/acorn), canned chicken stock, butter, onion & garlic, no supporting players, fresh thyme and sage, cream, and awesome gruyere croutons.

Here's another couple of ideas (the squash I feel are interchangeable, so I won't specify):
~Squash/coconut milk and water/peanut oil/onions and garlic/red bell pepper/curry powder or garam masala/pumpkin seeds
~Squash/diluted orange juice/peanut oil/onions, garlic, and ginger/carrots/a little ground coriander/fresh cilantro
~Squash/diluted veggie stock (BTB)/olive oil/leeks and shallots/an apple and a pear/cinnamon, cloves, and allspice/a little cream and chopped fresh parsley or chives.