I have to admit, I'm a planner in just about every area of my life. I love getting the kinks smoothed out ahead of time and just focusing on the task at hand. The one exception is when it comes to meals. I admire people who can plan and shop for a whole weeks worth of meals on a Sunday. My inspiration for cooking seems to come in waves. Sometimes a certain ingredient or dish will come in and out of my mind for a week or so before I have to cook it that night no matter what. Other times, a cookbook or chef will inspire me and I find myself channeling their style for several months. Hello Yotam Ottolenghi.
The thing that inspires me most about cooking is going to the farmers market. From week to week, it's a complete change of scenery. I love the intrigue of trying a new ingredient and the challenge of working with what is in my fridge before it spoils. Fear of guilt can be inspiring too.
With autumn in full swing, you'd think that lackluster root vegetables would be piled up at every stand. I suppose the nearing chill of winter will cue that change in scenery soon. For now, the vibrant colors of late autumn have inspired my palate. I ran across some orange cauliflower that I instantly knew I wanted to sauté with onions, curry paste and coconut milk and spoon it over a bowl of steaming basmati rice. The heat of thinly sliced black radishes added a little extra pepperiness to my salads last week. Squashes and pumpkins and other charmingly warty gourds have been warming my home as they simmer in a soup like this one.
Autumn Squash Soup
2-3 pounds squash (kabocha, acorn, or butternut), peeled and cut into 2-3 inch pieces
2 Tbsp butter, unsalted
1 pear, cored and chopped
1/2 onion, medium diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced
4 cups stock (chicken, vegetable or even water)
1 cup cream, optional
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup plain yogurt
a few sprigs of fresh herbs (chervil or sage)
flakey sea salt and coarsely ground pepper
In a stock pot over medium heat, sauté the pear, onion and celery in the butter. Continue cooking until the onions are translucent. Add the squash. Stir. Cook for 5-7 minutes until the squash starts to soften. Add ginger. Stir and cook for one minute. Add stock or water. Lower the heat and cover the pot. Simmer until squash is tender when you pierce it with a fork, about 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat.
Using a standard or immersion blender, puree the soup until it is very smooth. At this point, you can strain it through a fine mesh strainer if you’d like a more elegant soup, or skip this step to enjoy a more rustic version.
Whisk one cup cream (optional) into the strained version to add more body back into the soup and give it a velvety finish. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Dollop a bit of plain yogurt onto each serving, top with fresh chervil or sage, large flakes of sea salt and coarsely cracked pepper.
To take it up a notch, put the yogurt in a squeeze bottle (or even a small ziplock bag with corner cut off). Squeeze a few dots onto the top of the soup, then drag a toothpick through the dots. Seriously, that’s it.
VARIATIONS ON FINISHING TOUCHES
For sublime croutons, slice several pieces of brioche. Melt 2 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp brown sugar in a nonstick pan. Toast both sides of the brioche in the pan. Sprinkle with a light touch of creole seasoning.
You can’t go wrong with crumbled bleu cheese, toasted pecans and a grating of nutmeg into each bowl.
Add a squeeze of lime juice, a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, a few toasted pumpkin seeds and a sprinkling of curry powder to each serving.
Squash can be difficult to manage on a cutting board. Set a damp dish towel under your cutting board to stabilize it. Slice off a thin layer on one side of the squash to create a level surface. Place that cut side down on the cutting board. Use a large serrated or chef’s knife to cut through the squash. Cut it into manageable sections. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the skin. Then cut the peeled squash into 2-3 inch pieces for faster cooking.