Monthly Archives: January 2010

I ♥ Squash Soup

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:

  1. Saute onions in vegetable oil over medium-low heat until translucent. Stir them so they don’t brown.
  2. Add garlic and ginger and cook for a couple minutes more.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Sweets for my Sweet

I imagine that, for most people, the holiday season is a pleasant, if somewhat faded, memory by now, that gifts have been given and received, put into use or set aside in some secret corner for good will donations or future regifting. Though my cozy time at home with family is behind me, I’m still working on the gifting aspect, at least as far as my guy is concerned. Last year, Shawn and I were not together on Christmas, so we started a mini-tradition of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Day instead. Even though we spent Christmas together this year (eating my momma’s farmer’s cheese pancakes, walking in snow with hilarious dogs running rampant, feasting with family and sweet, familial friends…an excellent day, really), we liked the idea of exchanging gifts on another special day, back in the quiet of our Brooklyn apartment, just us two.

Exchanging gifts later also bought us a little more time. For me, that meant more time to think and think about what to make for Shawn and, for the most part, to come up short. Somehow, there was nothing in my crafting repertoire that seemed quite grand enough for my very sweet and supportive boyfriend, and I did not really have the time to embark on a great big project for him anyway. Eventually, I opted for a collection of smaller things, a booklet of monthly IOUs, things I could make or things we could do together, most of them free or very affordable (I don’t really have to shell out for anything in the book until October). He’s no great lover of grandeur anyway.

closed book

open book

I borrowed the matchbook style of the book from Laura at Betula ‘Loo, whose Giveaway Day giveaway I was lucky enough to win. She fills hers with blank paper and bills them as mini-scrapbooks, and I won two of them along with some other lovely paper goods, and they are adorable.

First up in the year of goodies: Homemade peppermint patties. Shawn loves peppermint patties, and I stumbled across a recipe recently and knew he had to have them. I love the idea of making typically packaged goodies at home, without the addition of unpronounceable ingredients. I read through several recipes online and modified slightly, and Shawn and I were both pleased with the results. They took a little bit of time, but only because it’s a good idea to let the filling set up a little before coating them in tasty, tasty chocolate.

Homemade Peppermint Patties: Ingredients

  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. butter
  • 3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. peppermint flavoring*
  • 8 ounces dark chocolate
  • a little dab of shortening (optional)

*I actually purchased peppermint flavoring for this, which is basically peppermint essential oil thinned out in a vegetable oil base. I was worried that using straight essential oil would be too strong, but I ended up gradually increasing the flavoring to at least 2 teaspoons. If you have essential oil on hand (make sure it’s real essential oil, safe for food, and not some kind of house fragrance oil), I think it would be fine to use that here. Start with just a couple of drops, taste, and add more as needed.  Also, I used vanilla. I thought it would be good. In the end, these things are so minty fresh that I’m really not sure the vanilla adds anything. Skip it if you want.

How to Make Your Own Peppermint Patties:

Beat together your butter, evaporated milk, vanilla (if using), and peppermint. If you’re going the essential oil route, put in just a little peppermint. You can always add more later. Add powdered sugar a little at a time to make sure it incorporates well, and beat it until it’s smooth. If you need to tweak the flavoring amounts, go for it. I have never made fondant, but I imagine the texture is very similar to the final filling made here. It looks like this:

OK, so that looks like it could be ice cream. It’s not. It’s room temperature and rather firm. I used a little cookie scoop to dole out teaspoon-sized portions. If you don’t have a little scoop, just use a couple of spoons. They’re going to get flattened out, so don’t worry about how pretty they are. I put mine on some parchment paper, but I’m sure you’d be fine with foil, wax paper, a plain pan, etc.

low-light scooping

I then put them in the fridge to chill for a bit, put on a pair of creepy latex gloves, and rolled them into little patties. You don’t absolutely need gloves for this, but I found that the warmth of my hands without the gloves melted the filling a little, and things got messy fast. I put the little disks in the freezer for about 15 minutes and melted some chocolate with a dab of shortening. I read that the shortening would make the chocolate easier to work with, keep it shiny, etc., but I didn’t see any great benefit. Next time, I’ll just use straight chocolate and temper it the easiest way I know how — microwave until not quite melted through, then stir until all melted.

I’m not the tidiest dipper in the world, so I’ll spare you the photos of me dipping the disks in the chocolate. I used two forks and transferred the finished patties onto a separate baking pan, lined with wax paper. It looked a little like Jackson Pollock had guided my hand at times, but no matter. I wound up with an immensely satisfying tray of shiny chocolate patties.

gleaming, again in low light

I’m sure they would do just fine on the counter top, but I was feeling a little impatient, so I popped them in the fridge to set up fast. Or was it the freezer? I stuck them in just long enough to forget about them — they were ready by the time Shawn asked where they’d gone. We’ve been keeping them in the fridge, their numbers dwindling, on account of the butter in the filling. I suspect they would be OK in a regular cupboard, especially in this chilly weather.

Shawn was pleased with his peppermint patties, and he has been kind enough to share them with me. I haven’t had a York in ages, so I can’t say for sure how they compare, but Shawn claims that mine taste less processed, more purely minty-chocolatey (not his exact words). There’s a chance this is merely the power of suggestion, but I’ll take it. Make some yourself, and let me know how it goes.