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