Tuesday, October 7, 2014

it's time for squash bisque

It's soup season. It's also winter squash season. Best not to fight it.

This is one of many recipes I consider easy not because it takes ten minutes to make, but because all of the steps can easily be fit in around other things - a bit done tonight and some more tomorrow; a step while you're going the dishes and another while you turn over the laundry. I recommend approaching such recipes (including most of my soup recipes, curry, sauces from scratch, etc.) this way - it makes them fairly effortless, but if you try to get them all done at one go it will take hours and you won't get maximum efficiency out of that time.

So there's a lot of little projects; assemble them as convenient for you.

One project: split a butternut squash (or perhaps two acorn squash) down the middle. Put them cut-side down on a foil-lined baking pan, and pop them in the oven at 350 for 45 minutes, or until they're the texture of mashed potatoes and you can remove the seeds from the inside and the skin from the outside with gentle pressure from a spoon. (As to the opposite of gentle pressure - I found it's easiest to split squash with serious force from a meat cleaver, but you can also make a starting incision with the point of a knife and then drop it from a decent height until it splits all the way, if you don't have a cleaver.

Another project: meat is definitely optional in squash bisque, but I recently made a batch with chicken that I really liked. You could also try bacon; beef; or maybe some canned lump crab? (I tried salmon at one point and the salmon flavor was totally lost - not at all how it tasted in my head.) So, prepare your meat. I find that if you're going to put meat in soup, it needs to be 90-95% cooked when it goes in UNLESS the cooking period for the soup is multiple hours, in which case the meat could go in raw. (For example, you could put raw chicken and raw squash in the slow cooker overnight; I think the texture would be less nice, but it would be fewer steps.) Assuming you're using my puttering-around-the-kitchen method rather than a crock pot, you might bake two chicken breasts (with a little oil or salad dressing so they don't dry out) and then cut them into cubes.

The main project: cut 1 large or 2 small onions into large dice. Saute them in butter or oil until clear. Toss in a teaspoon of minced garlic and saute briefly. Add the flesh of the baked squash. Next I added a quarter cup of white wine (optional). You need about two cups of liquid. Chicken broth or water and chicken bouillon are solid options. Most recently I used a pint of heavy cream, which was delicious. Of course, two cups of milk (or a combination of milk and chicken broth) would also work. Stir up the whole mess. You also want to add a REALLY big handful of fresh herbs. I used basil, lemon thyme, and oregano, since that's what I've been growing. Any of those by themselves would probably work, too, and dried oregano would also work. I think the flavor of rosemary would also be great - but not the texture. If you want to grind your rosemary, though, sure. And a bunch of fresh or frozen (thawed) spinach would be good too. Wait to put in your herbs until the squash and liquid have gotten hot; then, after you stir them in, take an immersion blender to the works. (That way you don't really have to cut the herbs.) Stop pureeing when it looks attractive to you. If your meat is 90-95% done, add it now. If you cooked it completely, season first.

Taste: it will probably need salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, and it will need acid. Lemon juice or balsamic vinegar both work well; if you want to keep the crazy orange color, avoid the balsamic (and the soy sauce). A whole pot of soup will really soak up seasonings, so add a decent amount, taste, then add more. Now, if you've done chicken broth and no dairy up to this point, you need dairy (IMHO). I like to add some sharp cheddar and a handful of bleu cheese - enough to really taste it. (I LOVE bleu cheese, and the squash can really handle the flavor.) I did not add any cheese to my latest batch, since it already had all that heavy cream. You can stop there, but you can also turn up the heat, in a variety of directions and degrees according to your taste. I'd say at least a moderate amount of paprika is a conservative choice. You could go for cayenne pepper instead if you want serious heat. And you could aim for curry (or garam masala), for an eastern flavor; or cumin, for something a little more Mexican; or Cajun seasoning, if that's your favorite. Feel free to put your nose in the spices and ponder which direction you'd like to go. Whichever way you go, keep tasting and adding more - you'll be surprised how much it takes to make a pronounced difference. Once you're happy with the flavor, add your meat if you cooked it fully to begin with. Then put the lid on your pot, turn the heat to low, and let it commune with itself for 20 minutes or so. By then, your ability to fend off the swarm of hungry people will be wearing thin, and you might as well eat it.

Even better with fresh homemade bread - more on that later.

And I suppose I should mention here that my sister contends I overcomplicate things, and her squash soup is easier and healthier with just a few ingredients - I believe she uses just the onions, the garlic, the chicken broth, and the squash, and salt and pepper. To which I say: if less is more, imagine how much more more must be.   

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