Monday, October 19, 2009

A Taste of Home

My mom is undoubtedly one of the most positive people I know. She sees the good, makes you laugh, and even celebrates good news with a cartwheel or two in your honor. I think it may even be impossible to be in a bad mood around her, seeing that she continuously exudes limitless support and enthusiasm to everyone she knows. One of her favorite responses, to, well, anything really, is to say that it’s ‘super!’ or that you did a ‘super job!’, and her saying and intonation has certainly permeated throughout our whole extended family’s vocabulary. Anyway, the other day I was craving something warm and delicious on a cooler afternoon and I knew exactly what would make me feel better: a recipe I have done with my Mom. I was sure the taste of the soup and the thought of her contagious energy would guarantee a success.

Elane and I had discussed making a soup for a couple of days and my craving for a warm bowlful and a comforting smelling kitchen increased intensively. While we browsed the aisles of the local market one afternoon I spotted a hefty sized butternut squash and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. “I have a great butternut squash soup recipe and I think that should be our contender for our soup fix.” Elane was all for it, and I finished gathering all of the necessary ingredients. Not only was this going to be a special soup since I learned the recipe from my mom, it also involved apples, which, of course, we had in abundance of in the cooler back at the orchard; picked with our own hands not too long ago. Although the recipe was from out-of-state, the soup was local where it counted: in the ingredients.

After a day of different tasks around the orchard, including my first attempt at drying some Bartlett pears and helping move Nick’s (the horse) pen to a different patch of pasture, the sun finally started on its descending path down past the cherry tree horizon. As its final rays made it through the kitchen window above the sink, I stood at the counter with a cutting board and a knife. I stared at the seemingly innocent 5 pound butternut squash. I was about to take on peeling, coring, and dicing a large butternut squash which I well know is no easy task. And with my trusty chef’s knife remaining in Massachusetts (it’s name is Spartacus…he’s that good), I was sure this was going to be the most difficult part of the process.

Needless to say the end of the production left me winded and with a sore arm. “Man, what a workout!” I said while leaning on the counter. “What’d you run far today or something?” Paul asked. “No…I just cut up a squash with a dull knife,” I replied, assuming that I would get an understandable confirmation back. All I got was an odd stare. “It’s really hard, I swear!” and quickly gave my schpiel on not only the difficulty of man-handling large winter squashes but also the importance of a good, sharp knife in a kitchen. “Dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones you know!” After I got that out of my system I finally returned to the real task at hand.

Next on the chopping list was a large, softball sized yellow onion followed by two fuji apples. They both were cubed in a similar way to the squash and were placed on a separate baking sheet since the squash took up an entire sheet by itself. With the last addition of a few cloves of slightly crushed garlic, the main ingredients were ready for their seasoning. Since they were heading into a 425 degree oven to roast, I started with a base coating of olive oil and the standard seasonings of salt and pepper. I also encountered some great additions as I browsed the spice section of the kitchen cabinet, and added some sprinklings of dried oregano, thyme, and red curry powder. Who said we couldn’t get a little exotic? That’s one of the reasons why I love this recipe so much – although the base ingredients are always the same, you can make the soup your own each time you make it since you can add any spices you’d like to it. That day we were going curry, and once the roasting veggies started wafting their delicious scent from the oven, I knew it was going to be a good pairing.

After about an hour, the veggies (and fruit) were at the right softness and had perfect caramelization along their edges. So perfect that Paul snuck his own bowl of squash cubes to munch on as a pre-dinner snack. “I’d eat ‘em just like this!” This meant the ingredients were ready for Step 2: blenderizing. And it really was simply that. I added all of the ingredients to the blender in small batches along with splashes of chicken stock to help along the pureeing process. Everything was poured into a tall soup pot, including another quart of chicken stock, to come up to temperature over medium-low heat. There was that soup smell I had been waiting for... I stood happily at the pot, slowly making figure eights in the golden yellow pond of deliciousness below me. Mmmm.

In the meantime, Emily spread out the seeds I had cleaned and reserved from the squash onto one of the cookie sheets. With a splash of oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, they went into the oven until we could smell their nuttiness and they had reached the perfect toasty brown color and crunchiness. At that point the soup had a slowly rising stream of steam coming off its surface which meant it had come up to temperature. "Time to eat!” I said happily and we all grabbed our bowls and large silver spoons.

Shockingly we successfully resisted eating all of the roasted seeds before dinner and therefore had some left to put on top of our soup as a most appropriate garnish. Our first bites were followed with nods of approval. The soup had such great levels of flavor without the feeling that you were being overwhelmed by too many ingredients at once. The freshness of the squash, onions, garlic, and apples were apparent. They all naturally have a subtle sweetness which was evenly balanced with the bite of the garlic and the kick of the red curry. We had also chosen a very well made chicken stock that left the soup without the need of any additional seasoning. The texture was creamy and stood at the ideal medium between too thick and too thin. And the final touch of a crunchy, nutty seed in the occasional spoonful tied the whole experience together.

I was happy about so many things as I sat at the table. For one, I had finally gotten my much desired bowl of homemade soup – a must have during the fall season. But not only was I enjoying it, Emily, Paul, and Elane were too, which is a feeling that it always incomparable to me whenever I see other people enjoying something that I have made. And finally, of course, since it was a recipe that I have only done with my mom beforehand, I thought of her as well as my spoon kept going in for more squashy-appley goodness. I laughed at the thought of how she would react to the whole scene. She would be so thrilled with the new spices and happy and grateful to have a soup made for her after a long day of work. “Super job honey!” I heard her say in my head. And, probably with the help of my cousin Becca, she would eventually have gotten to ‘soup-er job!’ which I thought was most appropriate to stand as the new name to this ‘Soup-er Apple Butternut Squash Soup’.

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