Friday, November 20, 2009

Squash soup warms you up

By Helen Klein

An essential ingredient in the cook’s repertoire is being able to react effectively when a recipe doesn’t live up to its hype.

What do you do when instead of fabulous flavor, a recipe delivers little except a thud?

That was what I was up against when I prepared a squash soup recipe recently from a cookbook that is generally reliable.

Yet, amazingly, after a distinctly unpromising start, I ended up with a soup recipe that was all I could have hoped for, seductive in its blend of flavors, and warming on a cold day, combining sweet, savory and a soupçon of bitter, definitely a keeper.

I have to admit that I was dubious when the recipe I began with called for the vegetables to be cooked for a relatively brief time in just water. But, I was in a hurry, so I pressed ahead anyway, which is why I ended up improvising -- rather successfully, I think -- when winter squash, carrots, potatoes, sautéed onion and garlic, enhanced by oregano and celery seed, and with orzo added for body, tasted bland and generally unappealing after what really wasn’t much more than a prolonged soak at low temperature.

For one thing, I upped the flavor quotient with a quick infusion of vegetable stock ( I keep a jar of concentrate in my fridge that I use regularly). I also tipped in about a cup of dry white wine, reached for the thyme in my spice cupboard and the fresh sage in my crisper, and shook in a goodly quantity of Hungarian paprika.

My goal was to concentrate the flavors, adding a broad background against which the taste of the vegetables -- kale was coming later -- would shine. Had I been able to go back in time, I would also have sautéed the carrot and squash cubes briefly before adding the potatoes and pouring in the liquid ingredients, to caramelize the sugars in these vegetables and intensify the flavor still more.

The soup delivered a bonus as well. With lots left over, I reached for a few ladlefuls of the mixture the next day when I reheated a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket in the oven.

When adding my personal stamp to precooked chicken, I normally roast it in a bed of briefly parboiled potatoes, plus onions, garlic and whatever other vegetables seem appealing, dousing the veggies with whatever pan juices have accumulated in the chicken package, plus added water as necessary. The soup veggies served the same purpose, browning on top and a pudding-like consistency as they roasted alongside the chicken.

Winter Squash Soup

2-3 Tbl. olive oil
1½ cups chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
4 cups peeled and cubed winter squash, such as butternut or acorn1 cup chunked baby carrots
4 cups peeled and cubed boiling potatoes
2 tsp. dried oregano1 tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. celery seed
1 Tbl. chopped fresh sage
2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 cups water
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chopped kale
½ box orzo

Heat the olive oil in a stockpot or a large sauté pan, that is both deep and wide.

When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic, and cook quickly, over medium heat, till translucent and golden.

Add the squash and carrots and sauté briefly, until golden.

Add the potatoes, the spices, salt, pepper, and liquid and cook over medium high heat for 20 minutes, checking frequently to make sure the liquid has not boiled out.

When the potatoes are fork tender, add the kale and orzo, adjust the level of liquid in the pot (adding more water if there is little left) and cook over medium high heat for another 10 minutes.

Once the orzo is al dente, and the kale is tender, adjust seasonings and serve.


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