Thursday, October 8, 2015

Autumn Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Brown Butter

As soon as chilly mornings and nights return, so it seems does our (my) craving for a warm or hot bowl of soup. With no undue disrespect to minestrone or any other broth based soup, there is nothing more satisfying than one having a rich, thick, creamy texture. Especially when the soup's thickness comes as a result of pureeing slowly roasted or sautéed vegetables and not from a roux or heavy cream. The moment I came across the recipe for Autumn Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Brown Butter in the recently released cookbook, Heartlandia: Heritage Recipes from Portland's The Country Cat (Adam and Jackie Sappington with Ashley Gartland), I had a feeling it would be one of those soups having a velvety, flavorful richness to it. What I didn't know was how insanely, want to lick the bowl in public, hope there is enough for a second helping, delicious it would be. In just one spoonful, it went onto my 'last meal' worthy shortlist. Only I have no intention of waiting until that last meal to make this soup again.

"You can't eat this soup standing up, your knees buckle." (Jerry Seinfeld in "The Soup Nazi"). This Autumn Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Brown Butter is not just a knee-buckling soup. It is the kind of soup that could create world peace. Yes, it is that good. 

The flavors of the kabocha squash, honey crisp apple, onion, fennel, garlic, sage, thyme, fresh apple cider and maple syrup are deepened by one simple ingredient. Browned butter. Whether you are making something sweet or savory, the magical qualities of browned butter take any dish to new levels of taste and complexity. If it hasn't already, it should be given Holy Grail status in the food world.

Enticed by some incredible photographs posted by a friend (and one who I have yet to meet), I have been longing to travel to the Northwest, Washington in particular. Other than attending a conference in  Seattle a lifetime ago, I have never really explored the beauty in that part of the country. And now after reading through the recipes in Heartlandia, I need to, no I have to, I absolutely must, add Portland to my list of must-go sooner rather than later places. So I asked the person who shall remain nameless if he would be willing to give up some of his miles so I could head out there sometime next month. He was. But then I thought, I should wait until late spring and maybe I could convince one of my close friends (the one causing me to drool from just the photos of an amazing brown butter cookie bakery she discovered recently in California) to meet me there for an adventure. If I bring her some of this soup on my next trip out to visit her I am thinking she won't be able to say no. I'll make sure to bring along some great wine from either Oregon or Washington just in case.

There was always baked acorn squash on my childhood Thanksgiving dinner table.  Despite my father's best efforts and the enticement of a butter and brown sugar topping, we could not be swayed into eating it. In retrospect this would have been one of his 'father knows best' about food moments.  One completely unappreciated at the time. Years had passed but those squash seeds planted at the Thanksgiving table finally took root.

The more common varieties of squash gracing our dinner tables, or at least my table, include acorn and butternut. Only recently (like in this past week) have I discovered the versatile kabocha squash, described by some as a sweet potato crossed with a pumpkin. With a deep green skin and intense orange-yellow flesh, it has a strong, yet sweet, moist and fluffy texture. Much like other hard winter squashes or pumpkins, this Asian or Japanese variety of winter squash can be roasted or steamed. Had my father made and forced us to eat kabocha squash when we were little, I would have been politely asking for seconds.

At this time of year the herbs and vegetables in this soup can be found at the grocery store and/or the farmer's market. Before I made this soup I had to 'google' kabocha squash on my phone while walking through the farmer's market as I didn't even know what it looked like. Thankfully the internet kept me from revealing some of my cluelessness to a total stranger.

The kabocha squash is baked in a preheated 400 degree (F) oven for 50 to 60 minutes or until tender when pierced with a knife. Baking time will vary slightly based on the size of the squash. My baking time was 50 minutes.

Two and a half cups of cooked squash flesh is needed for this soup recipe. Whatever you do, don't let any of the remaining cooked squash go to waste. Mix it with a little bit of butter (or browned butter), season with salt and pepper, and enjoy it. If you thought eating any leftover cookie dough batter was a bonus for making cookies, wait until you eat this cooked squash. You won't want anyone near the kitchen when you are making this soup.

In a Dutch oven or deep cast iron pot, six tablespoons of unsalted butter are melted and browned. If you have never browned butter before, foodblogger, Joy the Baker wrote a great little instructional post.

Thin slices of onion and fennel; a peeled and quartered apple; chopped garlic, thyme and sage are added to the browned butter along with fresh apple cider, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup (the real stuff), salt and pepper. On low heat, this mixture simmers until the apple, fennel and onion have softened (approximately 30 minutes). 

Two and a half cups of the cooked kabocha squash flesh are added to the soup base. In order for the flavors to meld, the entire mixture is cooked on low for an additional ten minutes. 

Working in batches, the soup is pureed in a food processor until smooth and returned to the pan to rewarm. (Note: If you have an immersion blender, you can puree the soup in the pan. Lucky you!) The recipe suggests water can be added if it is 'too thick'. I so loved how thick and velvety the soup was, I couldn't bring myself to 'thinning' it with a little bit of water. My soup palate said the texture was perfect.

You can make this soup early in the day or the day before you plan on serving it. However, if it thickens too much after refrigeration, you may need to add a little water to return it to its' initial consistency.

Depending on the size of your soup bowl or whether you are serving this soup as a meal or first course, the recipe yields enough for 4 to 6 servings. The soup can be garnished with pumpkin seeds, thin slices of a honey crisp apple, roasted mushrooms, homemade buttered croutons, or left unadorned. 

Based only on the recipe for Autumn Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Brown Butter, I can hardly wait to work my way through Heartlandia: Heritage Recipes from Portland's The Country Cat. If there was ever a reason to lift a self-imposed cookbook buying moratorium, this book would be it. Next up for me will be their Brioche Cinnamon Rolls. But I probably need to make another batch of this soup first. 

One you make and taste this soup, you will never again make soup from a can, container, or frozen pouch. Even if you are starving and it is the only thing in the house to eat. This Autumn Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Brown Butter will permanently spoil you. Finally you will believe and understand why you deserve better than good enough in your life.

Autumn Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Brown Butter (from Heartlandia: Heritage Recipes from Portland's The Country Cat by Adam and Jackie Sappington with Ashley Gartland)

A 2 1/2-3 pound kabocha squash, halved and seeded (for a yield of 2 1/2 cups of cooked squash flesh)
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
2 cups unsweetened apple cider
1 firm, crisp, medium-sized Honey Crisp apple, peeled, cored and quartered
1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 Tablespoon pure maple syrup 
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F). Set rack in center of the oven.
2. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, place the squash, cut-side down, on pan. Roast for approximately 1 hour or until tender when pierced with a fork. Let cool slightly, then peel away and discard skin or any other tough pieces. Measure out 2 1/2 cups of squash flesh.
3. In a medium Dutch oven set over medium heat, melt butter. Cook, whisking frequently, until the butter solids are brown and start to smell nutty (approximately 5 minutes).
4. Add the apple cider, apple, onion, fennel, apple cider vinegar, garlic, sage, thyme and maple syrup. Bring mixture to a simmer. Season with kosher salt and pepper.
5. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until apples, fennel and onions are soft and tender (approximately 30 minutes).
6. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, puree soup until smooth (Note: Work in batches). The pureed soup should coat the back of a spoon.
7.  Return soup to the pan. If the soup is too thick for your liking, add water until it reaches the desired consistency. Season with additional kosher salt and pepper (and additional cider vinegar if desired). Reheat until warm.
8. Serve in four to six soup bowls.
Optional: Garnish soup with toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted mushrooms, thinly sliced apples or brioche croutons.

Early morning sunrise and mist on a farm in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

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