Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pot of gold

My Father's Mother (Nonna Lina) is a short, sturdy woman, with kind eyes and worker's hands. She's 81 years old, but still digs up 80 kilos of potatoes at the begining of every summer from the small plot of farmland behind the apartment where my father spent most of his childhood. With my grandfather working long hours in the coal mine, my father spent a lot of time helping Nonna Lina tend to the chickns, pigs and goats they owned. And this is the reason autumnal meals spark within my father a serious cultural dilemma. For my father, squash wasn't something you picked up at whole foods, something third generation organic, fed with distilled spring water and harvested from the richest local soils. Squash was food for the pigs, and even though they were poor, they were not so poor they had to eat like animals. This cultural dilemma held no great significance in my life for a good part of my childhood, we didn't eat squash in my house, and I had carved enough pumpkins to be turned off by the gumpy innards of all manner of gourds.

However, this all turned around when I first tried butternut squash soup. A bright, golden bowl of warmth, it was sweet and garlicy, slightly salty and had the most delicate hint of ginger and nutmeg It was the kind of soup that made you want to curl up in bed with your favorite book and daydream for a little while about jumping into big piles of orange and yellow leaves. Needless to say, I had to have more, I had to re-create this soup and fill my house with the comforting scent of fall. And the first time I made it, I was not disappointed by the soup at all, only by my father.

After re-creating this ethereal soup, my father refused to eat it, claiming moral conflict. He was not a pig, he would not eat pig's food. Knowing my father and his taste buds well, I knew all he needed was one bite to change his thoughts on "zucchi" forever. He's the kind of man that's stubborn as a bull on the outside, but inside he's all cotton candy and butterscotch. All I had to do was crack him a little. My mother and I knew the perfect way to get him to break down. At the thanksgiving table, we would serve it as the first course (my father even tried sushi once when it was the only thing being served at the table).

That Thanksgiving, so many years ago, my father at two full bowls of butternut squash soup. He fell in love with the food of the pigs, and even admitted that his pigs must have had it pretty good. And since then, butternut squash soup has been on our Thanksgiving table, and I've worked pretty hard each year to perfect the recipe.

Other than a plain broth, this soup is probably the most simple in technique that I've ever made. No tempering cream or egg yokes for thickness, no beans or meat, just roasted squash and garlic and a few spices. But, it does take time and care, and because of how time consuming it can be, I usually try to make a huge batch of it, and freeze about half.

I've added a few more layers to my latest permutation of the soup, which included:
2 large and 1 small butternut squash
2 yams
1 1/2 head of garlic
1 diced apple
Olive oil (as needed)
2 cups (+ as needed) apple juice
2 cups (+ as needed) water
Nutmeg, Cinnamon, and Ginger (to taste)
Salt & Pepper (to taste)
I started by preheating the oven to 400 degrees, then halved the yams and squash and scooped out the squash seeds.

Then I cut the tips of the garlic heads and placed them all on baking sheets. I drizzled olive oil and sprinkled salt and pepper over the vegitables, and rubbed them a bit to make sure they were coated.

I roasted until they were golden and smelled sweet. Then I let them cool before I scooped all their roasted, tasty goodness into a pot -- you just want the flesh, not the skins.

I added about 2 cups of water and 2 cups of apple juice (it really depends on how starchy, dense and sweet the squash and sweet potatoes are, you can alter the water to juice ratio and amount accordingly) and 1 diced apple (I used a gala, usually a sweeter apple is better than a tart one). I let it boil until everything breaks down and softens up, adding more water or apple juice as needed. The final step is taking the emersion blender to it, and blending it until everything is smooth, and again adding water and juice as needed, it should be thinner than a mash or puree, but it should still be like a very thick creamy soup. Here is where I separate and freeze any portion I'm not going to eat right away. Then, the final step is adding spices, squash and yams can vary on how sweet they are, so I always add a little salt, pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon at a time and taste. Usually squash will take more nutmeg and pepper than salt and cinnamon, because it needs a little spice to counter the sweetness.

So like I said, its a long process, but not a difficult one! Just make sure you have good, fresh ingredients, because the vegetables are really what give most of the flavor. Also, this recipe feeds a LOT of people, but my family tends to eat it all up pretty quickly.