Break-Through Butternut Squash Soup

Up until about a year ago, butternut squash was firmly on my no-go list, along with puff pastry and canning.  Way too much trouble, I figured.  Hollowing out a pumpkin once a year is about all the large, stringy, gooey, seeded orange vegetable I’m interested in tackling, thank you very much.

Then I read in some culinary tome or other about a quick and easy way to prepare the butternut squash and it became so simple, that swear, I’m turning orange!  Butternut squash is inexpensive and surprisingly easy to find in Moscow most of the year around.  I get mine at the Farmer’s Market, where it lurks in a corner with the pumpkins, acorn squash and other vegetables of its ilk.  What it’s called is a source of confusion. Some Russians call it a тыква, which is pumpkin, and others a кабачок, which to me is more like yellow squash, but pointing to it wordlessly works just as well.  It’s the beige one that looks like an overgrown mushroom or a nuclear missile.

Butternut squash is a wonderfully versatile: great for soups and risottos, and delightful as a side dish for meats and poultry.   High in vitamins, it’s also low in fat, making it a great option if you’re trying to watch your caloric intake.  Filling and comforting, it is the perfect thing as the cold weather moves in.  This soup always gets rave reviews, and I think it’s due to the extra step of slowly cooking the onions unti

Sage (шалфей) is the classic accompaniment to butternut squash, and therein lies the problem.  I’ve yet to find a store in Moscow where fresh sage is consistently reliably available the year around, and, sadly, the market vendors don’t tend to stock it at all.   Azbukha Vkusa is the best bet, but you can’t always count on it.  Dried sage doesn’t really pack the same amount punch as the fresh, but if you are determined to use it, look for it in the chain supermarkets under it’s French name “sauge.”

If you can’t find fresh sage and you can’t bear dried, don’t despair!  There are plenty of options to flavoring this easy soup, which freezes beautifully, and can be dressed up with cream and calvados for a rich first course, or just heated up with some skim milk for a quick and a satisfying lo-cal lunch.

Break-Through Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 8
Prep time 1 hour
Cook time 1 hour
Total time 2 hours

Ingredients

  • 1 large butternut squash
  • (2 Tbl) 30 ml olive oil
  • vegetable oil
  • 2 large yellow onion (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 tart apple (cored, peeled, and seeded)
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 bunch fresh sage
  • (2 cups) 500 ml apple cider or apple juice
  • (1 cup) 250 ml dry sherry
  • (1 Tbl) 15 ml nutmeg
  • (1 tsp) 5 ml cinnamon
  • salt and pepper
  • (2 quarts) 2 l chicken stock

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F) on the roasting function if your oven has that. Adjust the rack to the middle level.
2. Lightly oil a baking sheet or roasting pan with vegetable pil or non-stick cooking spray.
3. Slice the butternut squash in half from the top stem to the rounded bottom (long ways). With the edge of a metal spoon, remove the seeds and stringy core or the squash and discard. Wipe dry with a paper towel. Brush half the olive oil all over the surface of the squash. Sprinkle salt and pepper in the hollow cavity of the squash, and place a sprig of fresh thyme in each. Remove the buds from the remainder of the thyme and set aside.
4. Roast the squash for 1 hour, or until the skin becomes brown. Let cool. Then, peel the skin off the squash (it should come off very easily) and discard. Chop the roasted squash into chunks (roughly 5 centimeters each, but it doesn’t matter how large they are.)
5. Set a heavy-bottomed soup pot on moderate heat. Heat the remaining Tbl of olive oil and sweat the chopped onions, stirring gently, until they are soft and translucent. Add a generous pinch of salt and stir. Raise the heat and pour in the cider, then use a wooden spoon to scrape up the onions and "fond" from the bottom of the pot. Reduce heat and simmer until the cider is evaporated into the onions. Add the sherry and repeat the process until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
6. Add the apples, butternut squash, spices, the remainder of the thyme, half of the sage, and the chicken broth. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the apple slices are soft.
7. Puree the warm soup in batches with the remainder of the sage in a blender or handheld immersion blender until the soup is completely smooth. At this point, what I call “the base” is finished. If you want to freeze it in smaller batches, be sure to let it come to room temperature before you cover and pop it into the freezer. If serving, reheat gently, then finish and/or garnish (see below).

To Finish (optional)

Reheat the base over moderate heat, then whisk in Greek yoghurt or heavy cream (crème fraiche if you can find it!).  For a dinner-party finish, add a splash of Calvados and a dollop of whipped heavy cream and sprinkle with chopped parsley or chives.

To Garnish (optional):

Compliment the vibrant orange with contrasting chopped herbs – sage, thyme, chopped parsley or chives.  Float apple slices on the surface, or spike with a wedge of blood orange, or a curl of orange peel and a sprinkling of sumac.

Variation: Taking it East (optional):

Indian spices are a great variation for this soup.  Add a tablespoon of both curry powder and turmeric (both available in most supermarkets, the farmer’s markets, and the Indian Spice Shop) as you sweat the onions.

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