Last Saturday was National Soup Swap Day. I intend to swap some soup myself, though scheduling did not permit that on Soup Swap Day. I will be showing up at a friend’s house next weekend with four quarts of frozen soup (a lot of people do six, but this seemed excessive given the prevalence of small kitchens here in NYC), prepared to snack and chat and bring home four quarts of soups made by friends. I haven’t swapped soup in this fashion before, but it seems like a nice way to add variety to holed up winter nights, to extend the tradition of sharing food beyond the one-night potluck.
I have been mulling over what soup to make. I’ve been eating lots of bean soups lately, hearty and full of protein and fiber. I made a big pot of tomato leek soup earlier this week that would probably freeze just fine. Lentils are great, and split peas, too, but my mind keeps coming back to squash soup. My decade(-plus)-long obsession with this soup has led some friends to think of me at the sight of butternut squash in the past, a fact that warms my heart more than the most heartfelt and deliberate compliments.
As with most obsessions, there is a story behind this soup. It is this: I took a year off between high school and college, and I spent a little bit of time in England. While there, I volunteered for a short time at a community arts center called the Great George’s Project in Liverpool, also known as the Blackie (so called because the building in which it was housed was once covered by decades of soot and city grime — it was cleaned up by the time I arrived, but the name had stuck). At that time, life at the Blackie was very communal. Staff and volunteers lived in one of two old houses up the road, chipped in for groceries and took turns shopping, and we shared dinners in the old chapel building in which we all worked. We also took turns cooking.
For someone who has always taken pride in her food, cooking duty was far more anxiety-producing than you would think. For starters, I was not accustomed to cooking for large groups of people. In addition, we received weekly produce deliveries, and we had to work with what was on hand. While this type of challenge now thrills me to no end, I found it a bit off-putting when fresh out of high school, thousands of miles from home, cooking in a drafty old building on a stove that needed to be lit in the most dangerous-seeming way I could fathom. Peering into the vegetable box toward the end of the food-delivery week and finding a handful of parsnips and two sad eggplants and knowing they had to feed twenty people or so was not at all inspiring.
In addition, and in keeping with the community-minded approach at the Blackie, meals were to be designed with everyone’s dietary requirements in mind. Again, I love this kind of challenge in this day and age, and I appreciate the goal of inclusiveness, but it was difficult for many of us at that time to create large meals that were free of all yeasted products, mushrooms, dairy, eggs, any and all animal products, etc. Surely I am forgetting some additional allergy. Wheat? Some other grain? We weren’t really supposed to use tomatoes, but that was more a strong preference of one of the founders than a strict allergy. Add in the facts that we had an extremely limited spice cabinet, that we all took turns cooking, and that some staffers had little to no interest in food, and we wound up with many uninspired and far from delicious meals.
The dinners that were truly good shone like little diamonds in the rough. One time, Kelly cobbled together a vegan, allergen-free toad in the hole that excited one and all. Occasionally, someone would roast parsnips to sweet, spicy perfection. And a couple of times, Jennifer poured coconut milk and ground black pepper into a pot with onions and tomato. A separate pot alongside for those who did not eat tomatoes contained onions and coconut and squash. It was simple, delicious despite its lack of fancy spices, and I loved pouring the two soupy stews together over rice, savoring the richness of the coconut milk, brightness of tomatoes, creamy sweetness of chunks of squash. An obsession was born.
I know now that the combination of coconut milk and winter squash is not particularly rare, but, when worked into night after night of drab and burned-around-the-edges meals, each of those nights following a morning of tea and toast with jam and cheese (one slice of toast with cheese, the other with jam, still one of my favorite breakfasts), a day of cup after cup of sweet, milky tea, the squash and tomato stew stood out as rich and decadent while still altogether nourishing, and I loved it.
Jennifer’s simple, separate stews have evolved over the years, in various kitchens that I have inhabited, into one big pot of gingery, squashy, tomato-y, coconutty goodness. Sometimes there are other spices. Sometimes it is smooth, other times chunky, most frequently somewhere in between. I have cooked this soup since I was eighteen, for college friends in my momma’s house, for a whole floor of girls in the dorm when I was back in England, for boyfriends, family, childhood friends. I think this is the soup to make this week, four quarts to freeze and some extra to savor on cold winter days, rich and wholesome all at once.
Awesome Squash Soup: Ingredients
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1-2 Tbsp. vegetable oil (I usually use olive oil, but I suspect toasted sesame would be even better)
- 1 large butternut squash (or equivalent quantity of your favorite winter squash), peeled, seeded, cut into cubes
- 1 big can diced tomatoes (or crushed or whole – whatever)
- 1-2 cans coconut milk
- an inch or so of fresh ginger, finely grated
- garlic (I use lots – probably 4 or 5 cloves, but you could do less or omit if desired)
- vegetable broth
- salt and pepper to taste
- extra spices as desired (a simple dash of curry powder is nice and warming, a sprinkle of cayenne brings some heat)
- fresh limes
Please note that these quantities are approximate. If you’re not typically a big experimenter, make it without the addition of other spices and then taste it, see if you feel like stirring more in.
How to Make Awesome Squash Soup:
- Saute onions in vegetable oil over medium-low heat until translucent. Stir them so they don’t brown.
- Add garlic and ginger and cook for a couple minutes more.
- Add squash, tomatoes, coconut milk, and enough vegetable broth to cover the cubes of squash by an inch or two, and bring to a simmer. If you know that you want to add a dash of cayenne or curry powder, now is a good time. Simmer until squash cubes are tender. You should be able to easily smash them against the side of the pot with a spoon.
- Mash to desired consistency. I used to use a potato masher to crush the cubes up a bit. I have also used an immersion blender, beating half the soup to smoothness and leaving some chunks. If you want a totally smooth soup, you can just throw it in the blender, but I think it’s best to leave a little texture in this soup.
- Taste it, add salt and pepper and any other spices you desire, and serve with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. A sprinkle of fresh cilantro would probably be good here, too.
This soup tends to thicken up if put in the fridge. I love leftovers spooned over brown rice and reheated just as much as I love this soup on its own, preferably ladled into a nice, deep bowl. Make some, eat some, be warm this winter.