Sunday, 24 October 2010

Family, with soup

Sometimes, you are taken by surprise.

Sometimes, rather than your normal to-do, you are daily delivered uncanny and surprising revelations and insights.

Sometimes, you are surrounded by new people, and you barely know where they've come from, but there they are, washing your dishes, patting your knee, making you coffee, consoling your tears, and carrying your groceries.

These new people are John and George - two dudes who have carved out a little corner of my heart and nestled snuggly in (thank you Laila, for being so dashing they couldn't resist but follow you home). They have been staying with us in Cazadero, on and off, for a month now.

Which means, I've had a full family to feed.

Feeding people out of necessity is a beast I have entertained on and off over the last few years. When I have full afternoons to read the food section of the NY Times, or visit a few of my favorite food blogs, or skim some of my much loved cookbooks, I delight in planning menus for the week, in picking out beautiful vegetables from the market and finding fillets of fish that are so fresh they barely need heat to become a delicious meal.

The thing about having having these boys around was, even when there was no time to plan or plot or grocery shop, I still wanted to feed them.

Soup was a good option. Once, I made a pot of this soup, serving it in big bowls flanked by garlic toasts. Another time, there was a bean and wild rice soup, with caramelized onions and spinach wilted into a spicy broth. But the soup I want to talk about today was butternut squash soup.

It is fall after all, and squash - nubbly, multicolored, warted, stemmed - are everywhere.

This soup I first learned to cook one winter in Berlin. My friend Lena bought a kabocha squash and a nub of ginger, and, in her small East Berlin kitchen, put together a fabulous pot of warm, bright orange, curry spiced soup that we ate with thin slices of dark, dry, rye bread.

When I cooked this soup with Lena, we sliced a few small onions (on that side of the Atlantic, the onions were no bigger than two inches in diameter), diced some garlic, and added the two to warmed olive oil. Next followed red curry paste and a few glugs of white wine which she let cook down. Into the pot went the cubed squash (unpeeled but with the seeds removed) and plenty of vegetable broth. When the pumpkin had cooked down, we blended the soup, then stirred in a bit of honey and creme fraiche.

I remember Lena had several small windows overlooking a cobbled courtyard, and as we cooked, the pot steamed and the windows fogged, warming us through against the November German chill. I couldn't have been cozier, speaking about our prospective times of transition over bowls of soup that anchored us in that moment of comfort.

Since then, I've made the soup several times, each varying depending on what we happen to have in the cupboard. Most recently was this butternut squash version.

This time, I didn't have any wine, or curry paste, or dense loaves of rye bread available to me. So to add depth of flavor, I decided to roast the squash, caramelize the onions, and fry the spices in a little bit of butter.

A few snips of parsley and a dollop of plain yogurt rounded everything out, in the company of a large loaf of crusty sourdough.

The final bowls of soup were equally comforting, though we combatting the standard autumn downpours of Cazadero, rather than Berlinian winter temperatures. More importantly, the family was fed and happy, bowls emptied and wiped clean with crusts of bread.

Sometimes, you need a different perspective to shake you up a little. You need someone else to come in, through some curry spice into the mix and bring your standard squash life to a different level - a level where things can change and things can happen and it's okay because your young and not trapped even though you perhaps feel as much - and then you love them and then you look up and you have two new members of the family, helping with dinner and bringing home ice cream for dessert and playing banjo and ukelele on the porch.

Soon, it will be John and George's turn to feed me. Laila and I will be joining them in the desert, where water, refrigeration, and fresh foods are few and far between.

Until then, I'll keep cooking soup.

Curried Squash Soup

1 large butternut squash, or similar sweet fleshed winter squash such as a sugar pumpkin or kobacha squash

olive oil

1 onion, finely diced

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 tbsp (or more) curry paste or powder

chili flakes (optional)

1/4 cup white wine (optional)

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth, more to thin

white pepper (optional)

honey or agave (optional)


creme fraiche or plain yogurt (optional)

chopped parsley or cilantro (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel and cube the squash into approximate 1 inch cubes. Spread the squash on on a large cookie sheet and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Roast till pierced easily with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

2) Meanwhile, fry the onion over medium heat in a glug of olive oil for a few minutes till soft and translucent. Turn the heat down, and cook at the lowest temperature possible that still allows the onions to slightly sizzle. Stir every ten minutes or so to prevent from burning.

3) Add garlic (and more olive oil if necessary) and turn up the heat to medium. When fragrant, add the curry powder and chili flakes. Stir frequently for a minute or two until very fragrant, then add the white wine (if not using wine, skip to next step). Let the wine cook off for a minute or two.

4) Add the broth and the squash, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the squash begins to fall apart. Taste for curry spice, and salt. Add some white pepper, if you like. Add a blob of honey, if you like.

5) At this point, you can decide if you want to blend the soup or to leave it with texture. I prefer a soup with varied textures, so I cook the soup until the cubes of squash are almost completely broken down, but not uniform. Or, for a smoother texture, you can blend part or all of the soup with an immersion blender.

6) Finally, if you need to thin the soup, add a bit more broth till the soup reaches a consistency of your liking, and bring back to a simmer.

7) Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of herbs.

Friday, 1 October 2010

October, with cake

Dear Friends,

I've left you out of so much!

First, there was the roast chicken dinner with Eva. On my own, I've yet to venture into whole chicken territory. I prefer pieces, dabbed with butter and sprinkled with fresh rosemary, salt, and pepper. Eva, however, can roast a lovely bird. A few weeks ago she tackled two chickens, and - despite the heat wave rolling past us outside, dipping in through the open kitchen windows to dampen our foreheads and singe the ends of our hair - with an enviable, unhurried bravado she tended them till crispy and perfectly bronzed.

Then, one Sunday morning, John made us Swedish cinnamon buns. A simple dough, spiked generously with cardamom and then layered with cinnamon and sugar, these little lovelies baked quickly in the oven, caramelizing nicely around the edges and pairing perfectly with Laila's chai. I could understand why, during the Swedish winters, children and adults alike tuck these buns into their pockets for snacking throughout the day, as something that offers a little bit of solace and comfort against the white and frozen backdrop of daily life.

Then, there was the last of the nettle pesto, blended with sriracha and garlic, wrapped around buccatini pasta, served with thinly sliced tomatoes, roasted long and slow till they took on a tangy, sweet chew. The wild flavor of the nettles and the spice of the chili brought this pesto far from the traditional and comparatively tempered Italian version, creating a lovely staple that only required tracking down a large (and cheap) bag of nettles at the farmer's market.

But somehow, I knew I was waiting for something. Friends, I was waiting for this cake.


Each of those words make my heart patter. And when I found them together, in a cake, something rung in the air that must have been the same bell heard when the first person put bacon and eggs together on a plate, or the Beatles together on a stage, or yeast and hops together in a bucket.

It was easy too: pears that had been resting on the counter for a few days, peeled and sliced (rather haphazardly), a bit of butter, melted while putting the kettle on for some afternoon tea, some flour, sugar, and other basics...and then, just like that, the cake emerged.

Some of the pears were ripe and syrupy, some, still firm and green. The heat of the oven acted as a great equalizer, tempering the sweet and the tang to soft and yielding. The cake had tucked itself gently around the contours of the fruit, staying moist and almost creamy in the center, while crisping into an elegant brown crust around the edges. No special spices or flashes were necessary. The baked pears and toasty notes of the slightly browned butter lent all that was needed for a perfect transition into autumn desserts.

Granted, it wasn't much to look at. The pale fruit peeked through the brown dappled dough in a rather rustic way, and nothing about it begged sophistication or raised chins. But there was no need: four of us devoured the cake still hot from the oven, only slightly noticing our burned tongues before the cake was gone. The dessert set our weary, summer-yearning souls right as we watched the sun set significantly earlier than it had the week before. Butter pear cake beckoned the fall with an unexpectedly warm embrace.

Butter Pear Cake

1 stick butter
4 small pears
150 grams white sugar
2 eggs
70 grams flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

1) Melt the butter, then set aside to cool. (I melted mine on the stove and almost forgot about it, so it slightly browned. This, in my opinion, was a plus.)

2) Peel the pears, and slice. Grease an 8 inch round pan, and arrange the pears on the bottom. (I prefer mine cut into irregular pieces, mostly on the thin side and haphazardly placed.

3) Mix the sugar with the eggs. Add the flour and the baking soda, then add the butter. Blob the dough over the fruit, as evenly as possible.

4) Bake 45 to 50 minutes.