Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Out of our doubt

Butternut squash. Just the name is intriguing, don’t you think? I’ve always loved food names. Sometimes it seems like they have nothing to do with the food itself, and other times, the sound of the word is more than satisfying in its own right. The butternut is not only blessed with a pretty name, but it has a pleasingly solid weight when you pick it up by its handle. Inside, the firm flesh is yellowy-orange, slightly lighter than a pumpkin, with a pocket of seeds inside that you scoop out. They’re not too shabby looking on the outside either, all curvy like giant oblong pears, with a smooth skin peachy-beige in color. When they’re piled high outside in the bins at Whole Foods, you worry if you were to grab one, all the others would come tumbling down—in big, hefty thumps. 

They are somewhat formidable and unwieldy-looking in their raw state, but with a little bit of coaxing and heat, they make a Monday afternoon in late January seem bright and full; autumn blooms bring forth rounded forms of a dense, creamy persuasion - a rare treat amidst the fog of winter. The butternut is certainly part of this tide. Acquiring such a squash is well worth the risk of an avalanche at the market, with thumps and brief humiliation, once you bring it home with you and season it well.

I would’ve taken a picture of the nearly four pound squash I lugged home from the Farmer’s Market over the weekend, but I was already peeling away at half when I stopped to get my camera, and by that time I deemed the scene at the counter much too chaotic for a simple still life. Clearly, I’m returned to soup-making mode in full force, perhaps because it’s been raining nearly nonstop for the last couple of weeks here. Some days have been quite stormy in fact, with breezes turning into rather violent gusts, and I’ve become rather accustomed to the sound of car tires on wet pavement, whooshing past. The magnolia trees outside my window today have been thrashing about every which way, and I’ve been watching people outside shield themselves with flimsy umbrellas - hurrying home, I like to imagine, to their very own pots of soup or leftover stews from the night before.
Lately I’ve been veering towards favorite soups that my mother has made for me at home, one with cauliflower and cheddar, which I always crave in winter—and another, which I made today and was especially proud of, with butternut squash and curry. The spices in the curry balance out the sweetness of the squash, and the addition of apple brightens up the earthiness of the soup’s base. The squash is faintly buttery, I think, and it's a bit nutty, too, but both qualities are heightened with the addition of curry powder. Incidentally, both the cauliflower and squash are soups my mother made often just for the two of us for lunch when my Dad was out, or when it was “fend night” (when we all "fended" for ourselves)—since he didn’t like either of the aforementioned vegetables. He got his pork chop or rib-eye, we got our soup, and everyone was happy. 

So. Finding myself with half of a squash in a Ziploc bag sitting in the bottom bin of the fridge, looking very neglected and sad, I decided this morning that it could wait no longer. It was time to start chopping that very minute, and there were to be no excuses. I considered a risotto, or a warm salad with arugula, but soup just sounded so much easier, and I didn’t need to go and get anything else from the store. I found a recipe for soup by Ellie Krieger from the Food Network and it sounded very similar to mother’s version, so I made just a few alterations and went forth. The amount of curry that it called for sounded like a lot, so I held back a bit at first, but then I ended up whisking in two more teaspoons after tasting it. Turns out it’s not as potent as I thought it would be. Also, I substituted coconut milk for some of the chicken broth, because I had it on hand and because I love, love coconut, in anything. (So much I have absolutely no problem saying it twice in one sentence. If I were to choose any diet, it would surely be The Coconut Diet. Just in case you were wondering).

Anyway, back to the soup, after I had pureed the mixture smooth with our fancy new immersion blender, I let it simmer a little longer until it reduced down and thickened slightly. I liked the idea of garnishing the bowl with a dollop of plain yogurt, since yogurt is indeed lovely on spiced or curried things, so I did that at the end, and I would have up chopped up some cilantro, too, if I had had it. 

Sometimes I’m hesitant about trying my mother’s recipes if merely because I’m afraid they’ll never measure up to the “original” version—that I won’t quite get it to taste like she made it, so I’ll be disappointed no matter how the finished product turns out. However, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about this hindrance of mine, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no use sitting around wishing I could duplicate her versions, I might as well give them my best shot, remembering that there is no such thing as the platonic ideal of a perfect soup. There is only the realization that there are daughters everywhere trying to create their mother’s recipes, worrying and fretting and feeling sub-par, until our sisters or our roommates or our husbands give us that look of gratitude, of satisfaction so deep that it sort of shakes us out of our doubt, for a moment. Then, we settle into that little well of pleasure—almost hoping it keeps raining awhile, just so we can do it all over again, tomorrow.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Adapted from this recipe by Ellie Krieger 
Of course, this goes well with some crusty bread, like this choice baguette we had from Acme Bread. I think it would also be great with a glass of crisp white wine, at dinner. Oh, and salted butter is always nice too, with that baguette.
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (2 1/2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 medium apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (preferably homemade) or vegetable broth
  • 2 cups (one 14 oz can) light coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons curry powder (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more, to taste
  • 4 teaspoons plain low-fat yogurt, for garnish
  • a few leaves fresh cilantro (optional)
Heat oil over medium heat in a 6-quart stockpot. Add onions and garlic and sauté until soft but not brown, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the butternut squash, broth, coconut milk, curry powder and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree with an immersion blender or in batches in a blender until smooth. Then simmer on very low heat and reduce, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes longer. Season with salt, to taste. Ladle into serving bowls and add a dollop of yogurt and cilantro leaves.
Serves 4-6.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chocolate and ginger

Oh, my dear little blog, you must really be starting to question my devotion to you: I can only imagine what you might be thinking: I mean, really, Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, Thanksgiving long past, and all you have to show for it is a loaf of banana bread?! The state of affairs must have really gotten out of hand! Seriously, though, where are the mountains of cookies and pies and fabulous spreads on bright red tablecloths? 

To which I can only answer: I am guilty as charged. In my defense, this is no ordinary loaf you see up there, but I’ll get to that later. Surely, there were moments I could have shared with you lately, but somehow I couldn’t think of a way to make them blog-worthy, or on a subject that had absolutely nothing to do with cookies, since I think I’ve covered that for the time being. Plus, in the flurry of packing my suitcase with sweaters and warm socks and heading north to Mendocino, I forgot my camera, so I’ve been puttering around at home with only my iphone to document various kitchen travails.* Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time to be sad about this mishap because of how busy I’ve been. In the whirlwind of holiday baking—between the rugelach for gift-giving, the pain d’epices (spice bread), and the apple and pear galettes my mother and I churned out for the Party—I’m afraid I’m also a bit tuckered out. Once all the crusts were rolled out and filled with fruit, then baked and cooled and consumed with healthy doses of billowy whipped cream, I just needed a few days to catch my breath. The situation was so dire that my French rolling pin and I decided to part ways for while (even though, I might add, we had just barely met, when I saw something long and skinny peeking out of my stocking). At the very least, a trial separation will ensue until the New Year gets well under way.

In the meantime, I'll make banana bread. I don’t know what everyone else does on New Year’s Day, but I can think of no better activity than waking up early to a quiet kitchen to bake—folding and whisking and measuring until left, finally, with a batter golden and thick and just faintly reminiscent of that soft yellow fruit. Later, you are greeted by a bread flecked with pieces of chocolate chips and ginger, as though it came out the oven already adorned with jewels. I am not talking about the kind of baking, mind you, that requires chilling and Cuisinarts, but of another order entirely, the kind that requires only a handful of tools and a couple of mixing bowls. In my case, while wearing an apron with sunflowers on it, watching the rose parade on TV.
I’ve never been one for resolutions, but I’ve had no trouble resolving to start the day more often in the company of ginger and chocolate and a preheated oven. I’m even thinking of starting a new tradition; instead of an elaborate brunch with Benedict and hollandaise, I say save those eggs to make a lightly-browned loaf that stars the pulp of a soft spotted fruit. Bananas aren't exactly pretty in their ripened, bruised stage; mashed like a potato they look homely at best, but they can certainly do wonders for your average cake. Mixed into a basic quick bread batter, they make a bread with a moist and delicate crumb. In response to a pile of gold and silver presents with bright-colored ribbons, this bread is the brown paper package tied up with string. One look at a slice and it’s no going back: studded with chocolate and flecked with golden bits of candied ginger, it makes a mean afternoon snack and even better breakfast, toasted so that the chocolate gets all melty and the edges all crisped up from the heat. So good.

For years I made banana bread using a recipe clipped from Bon Appétit, which was credited as being “low-fat.” It has buttermilk, but we often substituted yogurt and also added lemon zest, walnuts, and a few drops of lemon with the mashed banana. I still love this recipe, regardless of its nutritional value, but I can’t help but fall for this very grown-up version, still wholesome enough to be considered bread but also undeniably cake-like. I think it’s rather handsome with the deep crevice on the top, quite sufficiently “poofed,” as my Dad would say. 

Anyhow, the recipe is from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, which I highly recommend for both the prose and for the recipes. I’ve made this one at least three times, and it never fails to please, even if you don’t approve of chocolate for breakfast. Yesterday I only had three tiny pieces of ginger, and I didn’t want to go to the store to buy more, but the flavor still came through. In case you were wondering, Peet's Coffee carries The Ginger People brand of candied ginger that I favor, if largely because of its cute label and rounded glass jar. I also think you can use a bar of chocolate chopped up instead of the chocolate chips, but either way make sure to use a good quality brand; I used Guittard semi-sweet last time. But really, when it comes to bread and chocolate, you can't go wrong. 

You may also find the recipe here, for those that don’t own the book. Molly credits a fellow named Glenn, via her friend Kate, for introducing her to the chocolate and crystallized ginger additions, and although I don’t know Glenn, I am ever-grateful to him for dreaming up a trio that I won’t soon forget.
* As a result, the photos are bit lackluster for this post, but I did my best under the circumstances.