Category Archives: puree

Alain’s Winter Squash Soup with Homemade Croutons

both garnishes totally optional; croutons obviously also good for other applications, and yeah, i know: clean those plates!  

How I discovered squash soup…twice

The first time I had butternut squash soup—at a restaurant outside of DC c. 2001—it was a minor revelation. Up until that point, I’d only had winter squash in sweet things, mostly custardy pies and spiced quick breads or snack cakes. Even after eating the whole bowl, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I liked it, but I definitely liked the idea of it.

penguin dude back there still needs a name. I'm thinking "Geoffrey"I found a recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that involves roasting the whole butternut squash, halved and with the seeds scooped out, along with a whole head of garlic and a couple of onions wrapped in foil, until all the vegetables are tender and slightly caramelized and then pureeing them with just enough broth to make the mixture smooth. That still sounds incredible to me—roasted garlic! caramelized onion! no squash peeling required! But honestly, I never really liked the soup it produced. It was okay, I guess, but I never really wanted to eat very much of it. I’d usually make a fresh loaf of bread to go along with it and that also sounded like the perfect combination, but once I’d consumed as much of the soup as the bread could absorb, I never really wanted to finish the bowl.

So Alain’s soup was another revelation. It was the starter course at an annual Thanksgiving-season dinner party/potluck where the hosts make so much amazing food that everything the guests bring is basically unnecessary and redundant, but it’s all so damn good that the only reasonable course of action is to eat yourself into a Coma of Delicious Regret. And I knew this—I had just watched John pan-fry these giant mashed potato dumplings filled with pulled pork until they were golden and crisp on the outside and Niki had just brought a big pot full of slow-braised red cabbage down from her apartment on the 2nd floor and they had also made all the classic holiday fare—a glistening turkey and fresh cranberry relish perfumed with orange zest and this gravy that involves simmering a whole lemon in the turkey’s juices, which gets served in a teapot because gravy boats aren’t big enough (and which actually had to be refilled before people came back for seconds because everyone just wanted to pour it over everything on their plates). And then there was everything the dozen or so guests had brought on top of that. But I couldn’t help myself—I had a second helping of the soup. 

just after stirring the milk inIt is somehow both velvety rich and ethereally light. Even though I’ve been making it all winter and Brian knows exactly what’s in it, the recent rutabaga incident has made him sort of suspicious, so last night after he tasted a spoonful, he immediately asked how much butter I’d put in it. When I said “None,” he looked more suspicious and said, “Okay, how much oil?”

None. The only fat in the soup is what’s in the milk and the stock—so you could, using a fat-free broth or bouillon and fat-free milk, make it without any fat at all. Alain says that the best milk to use is soy milk, both because the slight nuttiness is a welcome complement to the squash and it makes the soup creamy but even more ethereal. I usually use regular milk because that’s what I have on hand and it’s also delicious. If you wanted something more substantial or decadent-tasting, you could substitute cream or half and half. The only other ingredients are squash, salt and pepper.

And it’s really easy. You do have to peel the squash, but as it turns out, that’s not any more difficult than scooping the flesh out of the peel once it’s cooked—at least for butternut, peeling acorn squash is kind of a pain. To make the peeling easier, you can cut the squash in half and steam it in the microwave it for a couple of minutes with a little bit of water and then let it cool until you can just pull the tough rind away.

garlic, parmesan, and berb croutons

A Swan Song for Stale Bread

I learned to make croutons when I worked at a Baker’s Square during one of my summer breaks in college. Serving house-made croutons wasn’t restaurant policy or anything; we did stock packaged croutons provided by the company and used those some of the time. But we’d also save all the ends of the bread we used for sandwiches and whenever we had a little extra time, we’d make them into croutons. It’s still my go-to recipe for stale bread when I have it, and the croutons it makes are so much better than store-bought croutons that I occasionally pick up a discounted day-old loaf from the store just for the purpose of crouton-making. 

This hardly merits the name “recipe”—it’s more a list of general guidelines: cube the bread, add some fat and flavor, bake until crisp and lightly browned. I always use at least one kind of dried and powdered allium (garlic, onion, and/or shallot), something umami-rich (parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, and/or msg), and some herbs (usually parsley, thyme, rosemary and/or dill). Paprika or pimentón and buttermilk powder also make nice additions. If you want “Ranch” flavored croutons, use buttermilk powder, garlic powder, minced green onion, dill, and msg. Bake in a hot oven (400-450F) for 12-20 minutes, stirring midway through and rotating the pans to promote even browning.

Recipe: Alain’s Winter Squash Soup peeled

  • 1 1/2-2 lbs winter squash (butternut, acorn, sugar pumpkin, carnival, etc.)
  • 4 cups water or broth (I usually eyeball this by filling the pot to just below the steamer)
  • 1 cup milk (soy recommended, but anything goes)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a pinch of ground sage, nutmeg, or cinnamon (optional)
  • diced green onion to garnish (optional)

1. Heat the water or broth in a large pot while you peel and cube the squash. I put a steamer tray in the pot—that’s not necessary, but I think it makes it easier to get it out to puree it.

halved, mid-way through seed removal and diced into ~1" cubes

2. Steam or boil the squash for 15-25 minutes or until very tender—you should be able to pierce the flesh with a fork without any resistance.

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3. Remove the solids to a blender or food processor and puree, adding broth as necessary to make it blend smoothly.

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4. Return to the pot. You could strain it if you wanted to, but that’s kind of a pain and if the squash is tender enough and you blend it well enough, it should be completely silky without straining.

5. Return to a gentle simmer, cover, and let cook another 15-20 minutes. While not strictly necessary, this seems to make the flavor richer, sweeter, and somehow…deeper.

6. Stir in the milk, remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe: Croutons sometimes the loaves are as cheap ast $.50, which makes these So Much Cheaper than store-bought croutons. the ketchup bottle was a temporary olive oil container that failed because it seemed to sort of...seep? it was really oily and gross to the touch.

  • ~6 cups stale bread, cut into 1/2”-1” cubes (that’s about how much one big loaf yields, obviously  sometimes you’ll have less—I usually just eyeball everything anyway but the following amounts offer some general guidelines)
  • 4 T. liquid fat—oil or melted lard or clarified butter
  • 2 t. salt—I don’t use kosher for this because, like with popcorn, you want finer grains that get better distributed and stick better
  • 1 t. ground pepper
  • 2 t. garlic powder or onion powder
  • 1 T. dried parsley
  • 1 t. thyme, rosemary, dill, or a combination
  • 3 T. finely grated parmesan cheese and/or 2 T. nutritional yeast flakes and/or 1 t. msg
  • 1 t. paprika or pimentón (optional)
  • 2 T. buttermilk powder (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with foil. Spray foil lightly with cooking spray if seasoneddesired—that will help prevent the croutons from sticking to it.

2. Drizzle bread cubes with oil and toss to coat lightly.

3. Add the seasonings and toss to coat evenly. Spread on the prepared sheets in a single layer.

4. Bake for 15-20 minutes. After 7 or 8 minutes, remove the pans and stir the croutons and rotate the pans so the croutons get evenly toasted and browned.

5. Let cool completely before placing in an airtight container, like a zip-top bag. Will keep almost indefinitely, but best within 4-6 weeks.

 before bakingafter baking

Jonathan Franzen and Joël Robuchon-inspired Rutabaga Purée

the coloring can be so gorgeous, almost like some sort of alien sunrise

“I love rutabaga,” said Gary inconceivably.

The Corrections,  Jonathan Franzen

The Root Vegetable of Revenge

Rutabaga isn’t especially well known in the U.S. I had never encountered it before my first Thanksgiving with Brian’s family, who eat it mashed with a little butter and salt, just like potato. The flesh is pale orange and especially when it’s cooked, you wouldn’t be wrong to describe the color as “golden.” The flavor is mostly potato-ish but slightly sweet and a little sharp—about what you’d expect from a cross between a cabbage and a turnip. Like most root vegetables, they’re large and inexpensive and nutrient-dense and can be stored for months at cool temperatures. Also, if you happen to be in Ithaca on the last day of the farmer’s market in the fall, you can you can use them as stones for curling:

So I really didn’t understand why they weren’t more popular until I read The Corrections.

the picture on the cover isn't actually a representation of the Dinner of Revenge, but it evokes it anyhow with the older, smiling good son and sullen younger son and the same sickly coloring of everything in the Gallery of Regrettable FoodThe novel centers around a middle-class, middle-America, suburban family with an inflexible, distant father named Albert and gratingly chirpy, long-suffering mother named Enid. At one point, Albert leaves for an eleven-day business trip without kissing Enid goodbye, and when he returns, he greets her by asking, “What did I ask you to do before I left? What is the one thing I asked you to do while I was gone?” Then, without even waiting for an answer, he disappears into his lab in the basement and smashes the jelly glasses he had asked her to move away from the top of the basement stairs. Enid channels her rage into the Dinner of Revenge. The menu, clearly meant to be a culinary manifestation of spite and passive-aggressive domestic squabbling, is liver and onions, boiled beet greens and mashed rutabaga. It’s designed specifically to be nutritionally and economically beyond reproach but gastronomically torturous.

Liver is clearly the prime offender:

Cauterized liver had the odor of fingers that had handled dirty coins…. Enid knew that Alfred hated liver, but the meat was full of health-bringing iron, and whatever Alfred’s shortcomings as a husband, no one could say he didn’t play by the rules.

But the rutabaga is definitely accessory to the crime: 

Thukkety thukkety thukkety went Enid’s masher round the pot of sweet, bitter, watery rutabaga….

A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister.

It has precisely the intended effect on Albert, who chews and swallows bite after bite mechanically, telling himself he’s lived through worse. And their older son Gary either genuinely likes rutabaga or at least puts on a good show of it because he’s fiercely protective of his mother. But poor Chip improvidently eats the scant bits of bacon and onion accompanying the liver and then he’s left with plate full of bitter, soggy, gag-inducing horror. Dutifully filling the role of family disciplinarian, Albert demands that he eat his dinner, and it’s actually the rutabaga that’s singled out as the source of special revulsion: 

He [Chip] actually picked up his fork and made a pass at the craggy wad of rutabaga, tangling a morsel of it in his tines and bringing it near his mouth. But the rutabaga smelled carious and was already cold—it had the texture and temperature of wet dog on a cool morning—and his guts convulsed in a spine-bending gage reflex.

Finally, Albert eats most of the rutabaga for him, which is portrayed as an act of great paternal love:

Alfred leaned over Chipper’s plate and in a single action of fork removed all but one bite of the rutabaga. He loved this boy, and he put the cold, poisonous mash into his own mouth and jerked it down his throat with a shudder. “Eat that last bite,” he said, “take one bite of the other, and you can have dessert.” He stood up. “I will buy the dessert if necessary.”

But Chip still can’t manage to eat the last bite, and not only does he go without dessert, he’s not allowed to leave the table. Albert disappears back to his lab and Enid and Gary do the dishes and play ping pong and eventually go to bed, with Enid carefully avoiding the dining room and rationalizing her way out of taking any responsibility for the situation because, as she tells Gary, it’s “between Dad and Chipper.” But Dad forgets about Chip entirely until late that evening, when he finally emerges from the basement to find the boy asleep at the table with his face on his placemat, the victim of revenge in the form of rutabaga.

Potatoes of Revelation

also, he looks uncannily like a younger version of emperor palpatine. an evil master of the forces of dairy fat. On the complete opposite end of mashed-root-vegetable-as-symbol continuum (this is honestly the sort of thing I spend my days thinking about: spatial/temporal metaphors for the range of representations of mashed root vegetables I have encountered), are the rapturous descriptions of Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes or “purée de pommes de terre.” Robuchon is widely recognized as one of the architects of the “nouvelle cuisine” that rose to prominence in both France and the U.S. the 1970s, which is largely responsible for the reigning cult of “fresh, local, seasonal” and the idea that great cooking is distinguished by making ingredients taste like as much like themselves as possible instead of altering them beyond recognition.

The mashed potatoes he served at the first restaurant he opened in Paris have achieved a sort of cult status. Here’s how sociologist Barry Glassner describes them in The Gospel of Food (which is ostensibly about excessive food worship and not, as the title might lead you to believe, a guide to practicing the religion of food…but actually does a little bit of both):

Made from the finest butter (and a great deal of it, eight ounces for every pound of potato) and la ratte, an heirloom potato with a hazelnut flavor, Robuchon’s mashed potatoes changed lives. In conversations with food enthusiasts in the nearly twenty years since I tasted that dish at Jarmin, I have discovered that I am far from the only person who credits that potato puree with a lifelong interest in great cooking.

In other words, Robuchon’s mashed potatoes are to Barry Glassner what sole meunière was to Julia Child, what oysters were to M.F.K. Fisher—something transformative, the kind of food that inspires awe and changes lives and elevates the acts of cooking and eating to something above and beyond the mere sustenance of life or a debased bodily pleasure.

And that may seem a little excessive or silly. I mean, how impressive can it possibly be to make potatoes mashed with that much butter and milk or cream taste delicious? But that’s a bit like the “my kid could paint that” response that abstract art sometimes elicits, which is almost always untrue and moreover, irrelevant. Your kid didn’t paint it, and if he or she had, that wouldn’t necessarily prevent it from being an equally brilliant use of the medium. Sure, it might not take a genius to figure out that heirloom potatoes turned into a silken puree that’s almost 1/8 butter will taste divine, even if you might not expect it to be so good it makes people who eat it contemplate food and pleasure and the nature of the potato and see all of those things in a new and different light. But then, you didn’t come up with it, did you?

While I’m sure la ratte is an exceptionally delicious potato, they key to the recipe is pretty clearly the ratio of butter: potato, which is so legendary that it’s acquired a kind of fish story tendency towards exaggeration. Before writing this entry, I was actually under the mistaken impression that Robuchon’s purée contained more butter, by weight, than potato. But the largest ratio I found in any of the recipes purporting to reproduce them (usually with pedestrian Russets instead of la ratte) is 1 part butter for 4 parts potato (one cup, or 1/2 lb of butter for two pounds of potato). And usually the suggested ratio is the one Glassner describes: one stick of butter for two pounds of potato or 1:8. Plus a cup of hot milk.

In retrospect, looking at that recipe, it’s painfully obvious that Robuchon’s potatoes are actually more like a butter-based sauce that happens to use potato as a thickening agent than a vegetable side dish. Ah, hindsight.

Butter-baga, or Just Because You Can Doesn’t Always Mean You Should

Even though I really liked the rutabaga I had at Thanksgiving, when I tried to recreate that at home, I sort of began to understand why so many people hate it. It must vary based on the rutabaga—or perhaps the climate or how long they’re stored—but some of them are definitely sweeter than others, sometimes in a way that’s not entirely pleasant, and some of them seem to have a more pronounced bitterness. They’re also harder than potatoes, more fibrous and more watery, which is why they tend to extrude liquid when mashed.

And yet they’re enough like potatoes that I began to wonder whether Robuchon’s formula for transcendent potatoes could produce something equally divine using rutabaga as a base—whether if, by pureeing it until exceptionally fine and adding an amount of butter bordering on the obscene, I could produce something so rich and silky that it would be to Revenge Rutabaga what Robuchon’s puree is to normal mashed potatoes.

I don’t have a ricer or a tamis, which is apparently what Robuchon uses to produce his incredibly fine puree without the potato getting gummy. But rutabaga is slightly less starchy than the potato and harder to mash, even when you cook it a long time, so I used a food processor instead. That worked just fine—even after running it for 5-8 minutes, the mash wasn’t gummy at all. Actually, it was gorgeously silky and ethereal—I had planned on pressing it through a sieve, but that didn’t seem necessary. I didn’t add as much milk because, as noted, rutabaga already has slightly higher moisture content and I held back on the butter a little bit, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say when you add an entire stick of butter to something but there was somewhere between 3-4 lbs of rutabaga , so the ratio of butter:rutabaga was somewhere in the 1:12-1:16 range.

Yes, the amount of butter is obscene. That's the point. no craggy wads here

It was still almost unbelievably rich. It actually didn’t taste a whole lot like rutabaga, either (for better or worse). It mostly just tasted like butter. And butter is delicious and all, but it’s kind of hard to eat very much of it. So one of the drawbacks of this recipe is that rutabaga is a sort f difficult ingredient to scale down. They are often, like the one pictured above, rather large. I essentially made a massive amount of incredibly rich rutabaga-based butter sauce, which is something I might want to eat a few tablespoons of once in a great while.

Recipe: Rutabaga Purée

  • One large rutabaga
  • 1/2 cup (1/4 lb) butter
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. Set a large pot of water to boil, and peel the rutabaga and dice into 1/2”-1” cubes.

some people advocate using a sharp knife instead of a peeler, but I'm not confident enough in my ability not to cut myself while peeling something as large and round as a rutabaga it is more difficult to cut than a potato; for the first cut, I wedge the knife deep enough that I can pick the rutabaga up and then slam it into the cutting board

2. Boil the rutabaga until it’s fork-tender—about an hour.

3. Puree with the butter and milk until completely smooth and season to taste with salt and pepper.

a bit of irony: when I told Brian how much butter I'd used, he refused to eat it and instead, ate a bunch of raw carrots Very Loudly and we both sulked about it until we realized how ridiculous the whole thing was. beware the power of the rutabaga.