Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pumpkin Soup

I'll be the first to admit that Pumpkin soup doesn't sound promising. It calls to mind soupy pumpkin pie, which seems disgusting, even for someone who likes desserts. The source of the recipe was also one to inspire skepticism: Ghoulish Goodies: A Frightful Cookbook by Sharon Bowers. Elly brought it home before Halloween. It includes lots of clever ideas for treats like "Swamp Creature Toes" (pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate with sliced almonds painted with green food coloring as the toenails). Honestly, though, in addition to terrifically amusing themed treats (suitable for making with kids) it also contains wonderful recipes, including one for pumpkin soup, which is savory, not sweet. Bowers' first comment about pumpkin soup is the biggest mistake most people make is trying to play up the sweetness of pumpkin. Ah.

Pumpkin Prep

Habitues of The Life Less Hectic may be familiar with my post on pumpkin pie, in which I discourse on the importance of choosing a "pie" pumpkin, NOT a carving pumpkin, for cooking. The same applies for soup. Indeed, for any meal involving pumpkin.

The method for preparing pumpkin for pies is simplicity itself, as described in the pie article. Prepping pumpkin for soup is more labor intensive, as the pumpkin needs to be cubed. Banish thoughts of peeling a pumpkin at the outset! Directions for peeling a pumpkin with a sharp knife are available on the web. I've tried (and failed) to imagine a more likely scenario for slicing off a finger. Instead, dice the pumpkin as you would a cantelope, first cutting it in half lengthwise and scraping out the seeds and pulp (blessedly easy with pie pumpkins as opposed to carving pumpkins). Then cut the halves into wedges, cut those into squares, and then cut off the shell. This takes a bit of time, but the odds of completing the task with all fingers intact are good. So much for cubed pumpkin.

By the way, even a small pie pumpkin yields more than you'll need for this soup (16 oz. cubed). Faced with this problem, I tossed the remaining cubes in a bit of canola oil, and roasted them in a 400 degree oven for around 40 minutes (turning them about four times). Then I pureed the roasted cubes. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the flavor AND texture superior to roasting pumpkin in the shell as in my pie post. Elly's theory is that the additional surface exposed when roasting the cubes develops more flavor and concentrates the pumpkin by lowering the moisture content.

Roasted Vegetable Stock

The only significant deviation I made from Bowers' recipe was to use roasted vegetable stock, instead of chicken stock. You want to make this yourself. It's not hard to do, and the result is far superior to any commercial product. This is true, in fact, even if you want to use chicken stock. Not only will the flavor be fantastic, you'll also eliminate chemical preservatives, which is no small advantage.

I followed Martha Rose Shulman's roasted vegetable stock recipe from her book, The Best Vegetarian Recipes.

  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped

  • 4 carrots, trimmed and sliced

  • 6 large garlic cloves, peeled

  • 1 large leek, white and light green parts, cleaned and sliced

  • 1 pasnip, peeled and sliced

  • 1/2 pound mushrooms, stems trimmed, whipped clean

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 cup dry white wine

  • Bouguet garni made with several parsley and thyme sprigs and one bay leaf

  • 6 whole peppercorns

  • Salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons)

  • Soy sauce to taste (1 to 2 teaspoons)

Toss the veggies with olive oil in a large roasting pan. I also included some kosher salt (NEVER use table salt). In fact, banish it from your house and use only kosher or sea salt. Your food will taste infinitely better, and people will assume you are a "foodie." If anyone actually uses the term, please slap them! Roast them (the veggies, not people who use the term "foodie") in a preheated 400 degree oven, turning about every 10 minutes, for 40 minutes until the vegetables are browned. They'll look like this. Note: these could actually stand a bit more browning.

Transfer the veggies to a soup pot, pour the cup of white wine into the roasting pan (a splash of cognac added to the wine won't go amiss here, or sherry), and scrape up any brown bits, stirring into the wine. This is called "deglazing" the roasting pan, and it is a serious flavor enhancer. Add the wine to the soup pot, along with 8 cups of water. A note on water: several years ago we got a Brita pitcher and filter all our drinking water. We also filter all water we use for cooking. This is inexpensive and quick, and noticeably improves the flavor of our food.

Back in June Elly made up some herb and flower pots, shown in this post, which included flat-leaf (Italian) parsley. If you're afraid of snakes, skip the first part of the post which includes pictures of a large black rat snake I found on the back porch and almost tried to pick up before I realized it was not a "stick"! :-) The parsley didn't do much until about October, when for some reason it took off. I took this picture a few days ago. We haven't had a hard frost yet, so in late November we're still enjoying delicious parsley from our own garden, along with sage, rosemary, thyme, and even tarragon (though that is getting a bit dodgy). The basil is long gone, alas. Standard herbs are truly hardy plants, inexpensive and easy to grow, and a real boon for the kitchen.

Okay, so the bouquet garni. (You may be wondering about that.) Essentially, it is a cheese cloth bag (or just a scrap of cheese cloth tied up with some string) into which you have stuffed various herbs, in this case parsley and thyme from our garden and a bay leaf. We got these garni bags from Prydes in Westport, and they are fun. A clever trick, if you don't have garni bags, is to empty a tea bag and use that instead. (But the garni bags work better!)

Add the bouquet garni, peppercorns, salt and soy sauce (I use 2 teaspoons of each) to the soup pot, bring it to a boil, and then reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for an hour.

Keep in mind, we haven't gotten to the soup yet. This is only the stock! In case you haven't already guessed, this is what slow food is all about. Frequently, when the subject of slow food comes up, all sorts of exotic locales (like Italy, where the slow food movement got started) or ingredients are mentioned. None of that is essential to slow cooking, however, and people who think it is usually also think cooking is a bore and needs some hype to make it interesting. All of the ingredients called for in this recipe are available in just about any reasonably stocked grocery store. Also, keep in mind that while you can't make this soup in half an hour, much of the time required is cooking time, during which your involvement is little more than an occasional stir and a quick check to ensure an appropriate simmer. And, needless to say, your kitchen and home will be filled with the delicious aroma.

So, once the stock has simmered, it needs to be strained. This can be done with a strainer and spoon (used to mash as much juice as possible from the roasted veggies). If you have a food mill, you can really wring the last drop of liquid from the veggies. We started our compost pile this year, which is where the leftover pulp ended up.

Now for the Soup

  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped

  • 1 celery stalk, chopped

  • 4 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 pound pumpkin, cubed

  • 1 medium potato, peeled and diced

  • 1 teaspoon dried sage

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 8 cups roasted veggie stock

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and then add the chopped onion and celery and saute until softened and lightly browned. Deviating from Bowers' recipe, my advice is NOT to add the minced garlic until the onion and celery are done. Add the garlic and saute for only a few moments before adding the stock and other ingredients. Otherwise, the garlic will burn. The fact that recipes often call for sauting garlic along with ingredients like onions and celery is a puzzle to me. The result is always burnt garlic. Why is this standard advice?

Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. (Or longer if you like.)

Once the cubed pumpkin and diced potato is tender, remove the soup from the burner and puree it a few cups at a time in a blender. The result will be smooth and creamy. I apologize for not having a picture of this process. I used two large pots, the soup pot and an empty pot, one on either side of the blender, and a ladle to transfer the soup into the blender. Do NOT attempt to use a food processor for this! :-)

The finished soup will look something like this.

This is a time-consuming project. Is it worth the trouble? In a word, yes! The first time I made it, I had to insist that Elly (a vegetarian) step away from the soup pot before she consumed an entire bowl in what was intended to be a simple taste. :-) Apart from the olive oil, this soup is fat-free. And yet it is richer and creamier than the Lobster bisque served at the Bravo's restaurant (a frequent lunch venue for myself and close friends Dahl and Erin Metters). I have made the soup for three weeks running. Elly, who NEVER eats the same meal two nights in a row, is happy to have pumpkin soup every night until it is consumed. And honestly, it is not difficult to make. It doesn't require any exotic or expensive ingredients. It is super-healthy and an absolute treat. There's no down side. You will simply never taste any soup from a can than comes within 100 miles of this for flavor.

Bowers suggests serving the soup with French bread croutons, rubbed with garlic and covered with melted cheese like cheddar or parmesian. It's a wonderful combination. But, even better is to serve it with Andrew Whitley's recipe for Cheese Bread from Bread Matters. That's a subject for another post...


Robert said...

Oh Fiske, Fiske, Fiske: such a display of Foodie misunderstanding: " I also included some kosher salt (NEVER use table salt). In fact, banish it from your house and use only kosher or sea salt. Your food will taste infinitely better, and people will assume you are a "foodie."

Once it is dissolved, it is, I fear but Sodium Chloride. Hence the taste advantages of Kosher and Sea - which are to make a splash on the taste buds when not dissolved, are gone, gawn, never to be regained.

Fiske said...

Dear, Dear Robert!

The issue with table salt is not the Sodium Chloride, which constitutes 97 - 99% of the total, but with the sodium silicoaluminate (an anti-caking agent) and with the potassium iodide, sodium iodide, or sodium iodate (included as a mineral supplement). Oh, and some table salt also includes Sodium ferrocyanide! Yes, cyanide.

The result of all this is a nasty, chemical taste completely absent from Kosher or sea salt. And also, BTW, absent from food cooked with kosher or sea salt.

To improve your, ahem, scholarship in this area, not to mention your culinary efforts, please consult this informative Widipedia article about table salt.