As a wannabe saucier myself, I probably devote more of my culinary research time and actual kitchen hours to the fine art of soup-making than any other aspect of food history and the whole wide world of “gourmet adventuring”. I am convinced that no other form of kitchen craft offers the serious chef so open and unobstructed an invitation for experimentation and innovation. Only in America is the lowly bowl of soup viewed – and employed – as a mere introductory course, or even a “side dish” to be chosen in place of a salad, or as a “time-filler” for slow decision-makers concentrating on the menu’s “main course”. In much of the food-erudite world, soup IS the main course, from Tuscany and Milan, to Bordeaux and Monaco, as well as in out-of-the-way places from Pacific islands to the villages of the Middle East.
As I travel our own country, I pay special attention to sign boards in promising restaurants that announce: SOUP OF THE DAY, for I have discovered that it is here that creative chefs are often given license to wander from the mandated and cast-in-cement menu choices which ordinarily harness their real talents. In my notebook of “happy food discoveries” are such examples as “Crab and Asparagus Bisque”, “Baked potato Cheddar Cheese Chowder”, and “Red Bean Gumbo with Cornmeal Dumplings”, after each of which I have rushed to my own kitchen to play copycat cook.
A few years ago we were dining at a fairly generic seafood restaurant in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, where one could at least count on a half-dozen good menu items when I noted a hand-written “Chef’s Special” for “Jim Beam Butternut Squash Soup”.
While I often send my compliments to a deserving chef, I believe it is crass and even insulting to ask one for his recipe, so I was left with no choice but to begin to deconstruct what I could remember of that wonderful mid-day experience. My experiments went on for several years before arriving at the version I now call my own. Let’s talk about strategy first.
The easiest way to pre-cook a butternut squash (and no other winter squash can duplicate what I was seeking), is to boil or steam it before mashing it for the puree, but that just didn’t cut the mustard. The secret to releasing this vegetable’s deep flavor I found is to roast it, cut sides up in a 350 degree oven with an aluminum-foil cover and very shallow bit of moisture until tender, removing the foil for the last ten minutes. By surrounding the squash with pieces of onion and peeled apple slices and brushing it all with a honey-and-oil glazing coat, I could finally unlock the cooperating levels of flavor that made it “right”. Cooking the mixture of spooned-out squash meat, onions and apples with some chicken broth and finally pureeing it with an immersion blender while adding enough half-and-half to reach a smooth consistency brought it all together. A dash of kosher salt, white pepper, and a tiny grating of nutmeg is the finishing touch.
If you have no objection to the option, cook several tablespoons of any inexpensive “cooking whiskey” – Jim Beam if you have it - to steam away most of the alcohol if you prefer, and blend it with the chicken broth, bringing the combined liquids to a boil before adding the squash mixture. You will need one large butternut squash, two small onions, two apples, peeled and sliced, 2 cups chicken broth and about two cups half-and-half.
One of the beauties of Butternut squash is its wide availability year-round.
For a smooth consistency, avoid boiling the mixture after adding the cream.