I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I've evolved into a cook that lets the ingredients dictate what I'm making for dinner rather than a recipe. Don't misunderstand, I still maintain a personal recipe list and I watch a ton of cooking shows on television in order to find inspiration. But other than baking (which is more science than art), I personally view recipes as the jumping off point when I am planning what to have for dinner. I didn't use to be like this and would cling with an almost religious fervor to every number and word on a recipe, as if the success of the dish wholly depended on whether I added every single ingredient in the proper order.
My grandmother is often amazed at what I come up for dinner when I cook for the two of us. She is constantly asking me where I got the recipes that I use and I have to be honest, I rarely cook from recipes. If it's something with a specific flavor like Chicken Marsala, of course there will be a kernel of truth, an acknowledgment to the original, in the final dish. But I tend to riff quite a bit given the ingredients, equipment, and time that I have available. I suppose cooking in this fashion takes a bit of fearlessness and a basic understanding of which flavors complement each other.
Today's kitchen challenge was inspired by a recent trip to the winter's farmer market being hosted by Countryside Conservancy and housed inside the Old Trail School on Ira Road. While the summer's farmer market is held at Howe Meadow on Riverview Road, the indoor market has had a surprising number of vendors still selling their wares. After stopping at my friend Diane's booth to pick up one of her locally sourced peach pies (and she now has a Facebook fan page ... check it out), I started wandering amongst the other vendors. When I spotted a vendor selling enormous butternut squash, the first thing that popped into my head was, "Soup!"
Everything else I purchased at the farmers market supported that thought: organic carrots, locally produced honey, and yellow onions. With my bounty in hand, I stopped at the Giant Eagle close to my grandmother's condo to pick up the remaining ingredients:
To my cart, I added a knob of fresh ginger, two 32 ounce boxes of low sodium chicken broth and a box of fresh chervil. I originally wanted tarragon, but seeing as Giant Eagle was fresh out, I substituted the chervil instead as they have a similar anise note to them.
So, before I start cooking, here was the official recipe I used today:
2 very large butternut squash
2 large yellow onions
1 pound carrots
2 32 ounce containers of low sodium chicken broth/stock
1 2 inch length of fresh ginger
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 pinch dried red pepper flakes
1 box fresh chervil (or tarragon)
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Before doing anything else, I turned the oven on to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, using a very sturdy and sharp knife, I cut the butternut squash in half and used a large metal spoon to remove the seeds and stringy bits at the base of the squash. After a rubdown with a bit of olive oil, I placed them cut side up on a baking sheet:
I placed this on the top rack of the oven and roasted them for thirty (30) minutes. During this time, I peeled and quartered the two yellow onions, placed them on a second baking sheet and rubbed them down with a bit of olive oil as well:
At the thirty minute mark, I placed the second baking sheet into the oven on the lower rack. I roasted the squash and onions for an additional forty-five (45) minutes. Your squash may require less time if they are smaller.
While waiting for the squash and onions to finish roasted, I turned my attention to the carrots. After peeling, trimming and chopping the carrots, I was left with this:
For the ginger, I used a metal spoon to peel the outer flesh away (you can also use a vegetable peeler, too) and chopped the ginger into a fine brunoise:
To do a brunoise, use your knife to slice the ginger into planks, then line the planks up and slice across them to form a julienne. Finally, gather the julienned ginger and give it a ninety-degree turn and chop across the matchstick-sized pieces to create small even cubes. Since the soup was pureed, I wasn't worried about someone getting a large piece of ginger, however, chopping the ginger this finely increases the amount of surface area and thus will infuse the soup with a more pronounced ginger flavor.
After an hour and fifteen minutes, a paring knife easily inserted into the flesh of the squash. I pulled them from the oven and let them rest on the stovetop:
Notice the lovely brownish color on the exposed surface of the squash. Color equals caramelization equals lots of flavor!
Here was a shot of the roasted onions:
After forty-five minutes in the oven, the onions had softened considerably and the nice bits of deeply caramelized surface would add a wonderful depth to the soup's final flavor.
I left the squash and the onions to cool slightly while I turned my attention to starting the actual soup. First up was about a 1/4 cup of olive oil in a preheated pan to which I added the chopped carrots:
I sweated the carrots for about ten (10) minutes to soften them a touch. At this point I added the chopped ginger:
I continued to cook the carrot/ginger combination for about two (2) minutes longer, stirring every so often to make sure there was no sticking or burning.
At this point, the recipe turned into an "Everybody In The Pot" kind of moment:
I used a large metal spoon to scrape as much of the cooked squash flesh from the skin and added it. The onions went in, along with a pinch of red pepper flakes, two tablespoons of roughly torn chervil, and 1 1/2 boxes of chicken broth. I added an initial grinding of black pepper and a about a tablespoon of course sea salt. I knew that the carrots still had to soften a bit, so I brought the soup to an easy simmer and stirred it from time to time for about twenty (20) more minutes, or until the carrots were softened. I added another tablespoon or so of fresh chervil. When cooking with fresh herbs, it is often a good idea to add part of the herbs at the beginning of the cooking process to extract all of the flavor and part at the end to add an herbaceous freshness.
At this point, I pulled out my handy immersion blender (aka "stick" blender),
plugged it in, pulled the pot off of the active burner and began blending the soup to a smooth consistency. Granted, an immersion blender won't get your soup ultra-smooth like a Vita-Mix would, but for grandma and me, it was good enough. Once the soup was pureed to the correct consistency, I transferred the pot back to the active burner on the lowest setting available, added about a 3/4-1 cup more of the chicken stock to thin it to the correct consistency, honey, sherry vinegar and another dosing of salt and pepper to correct the seasoning:
The honey was used to heighten the natural sweetness from the squash, carrots, and onions. The vinegar was used to slightly brighten the flavor of the soup. You don't want so much vinegar that the soup tastes sour, but given the amount of soup I made today, a teaspoon was just about perfect. At this point, you could eat it as is (which is the healthiest option) or add a bit of heavy cream, sour cream, or yogurt if you wanted to change the texture or taste slightly.
Here was a shot of the finished bowl of roasted butternut squash soup:
On a cold winter day, this was just what I needed: hearty, flavorful, and deeply satisfying. To accompany the soup were turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread that my grandmother put together:
While soup and sandwiches may seem a bit simplistic for me, this was exactly what the doctor ordered. As a bonus, I was able to fill an additional nine (9) two cup plastic containers with leftover soup and stash them in my grandmother's freezer to be reheated for future lunches or dinners when she wants something fresh, healthy, and easy. With her penchant for buying the sodium ladened canned soups (I'm sure you can guess which label), I finished this meal feeling like I had done something positive not only tonight, but also for her near future.
I sincerely hope you give this soup a try as it is the kind of thing you could make on the weekend and then eat throughout the next week. To make an even quicker version of this soup, you could substitute out the butternut squash with cans of cooked pumpkin (not the pie filling, just regular pumpkin) and cut the onions smaller and cook them with the carrots instead of roasting them in the oven. Will the flavor be as deep and complex as if you had roasted the vegetables? No, but you could cut your prep time from several hours to perhaps thirty minutes. Happy eating!