Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Roasted Squash and Apple Soup ("It's All About the Garnish")

It's a stalwart cook indeed who can look upon autumn's bounteous offering of bright, appealing squashes and pumpkins, and refrain from making soup.  I've failed that test again, but with a purpose.

The problem with squash soup...well, where to start?  Too sweet, too gloppy, too monotonously...squashy.  To cut into that imposingly bland flavor (which I like, don't get me wrong), strong spices are often employed, but the curried squash soup, for instance, is by now such a tired cliché, some people must think that squash naturally tastes like curry powder.  Sometimes squash soup gets the Thai treatment:  lemongrass, coconut milk, bird-eye chiles.  I think that's trying a little too hard.

And the texture, what to do with the texure:  add too little liquid, in the form of stock, milk or cream, and you've got baby food rather than soup; too much, and the result doesn't taste much like squash (I hear some of you saying, "And what's wrong with that...?").

This preparation is a step in the direction of a corrective to this gnarly dilemma.  Better cooks than I have ventured down that path, I'm sure, but here's my stab at it.  I don't think this is the end of the road, but it's good (a cup of Cedar Summit cream will tip most anything in the "good" direction).  Another autumn will bring more wagonloads of autumn's most recognizable vegetables, their colors nostalgically mimicking the turning leaves; and once again we won't be able to not make soup.

I counter the sweetness and blandness issues in one blow, by adding tart apple and fresh apple cider.  These are both highly seasonal ingredients, as well, so we're keeping with the autumnal soup spirit.  Roasting the ingredients until they are slightly browned brings up the flavor, too.  And why add maple syrup, if we're worried about the soup being too sweet?  Well, the maple has a different sort of sweetness, very complementary to the tart apple and cider, I think, and a little sharpness of its own, and a roundness.  To achieve a pleasant texture and deepen the flavor, I use good chicken stock to simmer the soup, and that good cream to finish it.

And: I garnish the hell out of it.  This is the "secret" to excellent creamy soups, I think, especially those that threaten to overwhelm the palate with sameness if not carefully disciplined with the application of fresh, complementary and contrasting flavors and textures at the table.  You could almost look at the soup per se as a blank canvas, and take on the role of the Jackson Pollock of soup in your extravagent garnishings.

We actually have a saying around here (you can ask Mary, she'll back me up):  "It's all about the garnish," is what we say.  Have a try. (If I seem to be damning this soup with faint praise, well, that's just how I am; in fact it is a very satisfying dish on a cool autumn evening; a piece of crusty bread and a green salad will make it a meal.)

Roasted Squash and Apple Soup
serves four as a main course, six to eight as a starter

2 pounds squash (trimmed weight), peeled, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces, 7 to 8 cups--butternut would be ideal
1 tart apple, peeled, cored, and quartered
4 large cloves garlic, peeled
3 shallots (each the size of a small egg, about 3 ounces total), peeled and halved, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sweet apple cider
4 cups chicken stock (unsalted or low-salt)
Sage and thyme
1/8 teaspoon espelette pepper or a couple pinches of cayenne, optional
1 cup heavy cream
4 teaspoons maple syrup

Preheat oven to 425.  Toss the squash pieces with the olive oil and a couple good pinches of salt, and place them on a baking sheet.  Roast for 20 minutes.  Set aside one half of a shallot--to be used later as garnish.  Add the apple, garlic, and remaining shallots to the baking sheet, toss to coat with oil, and roast for 20 minutes more, until the squash and apples are soft and a bit browned--they may even be quite mushy at this point, depending on the produce.

In a large saucepan combine the roasted vegetables and apple, the stock, cider, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and few grinds of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried), and 4 sage leaves, chopped (or 1/2 teaspoon dried).  Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 30 minutes.  Allow the soup to cool to lukewarm, then either pass it through a food mill, or puree it in a blender; return the resulting puree to the saucepan. 

The soup can be made a day or two ahead up to this point.  When you are ready to serve the soup, add the cream, maple syrup, and the optional espelette or cayenne.  Bring to a simmer and cook very gently for 5 minutes.  Taste and adjust for salt.  If the soup seems too thick, thin it to where you want it by adding a little more stock, water, or cream, as you prefer.

Serve with any or all of these garnishes:

--Finely diced apple tossed with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice to keep it from browning.
--Grated sharp white cheddar.
--The reserved shallot, minced, lightly browned in butter or olive oil: drizzle in a swirl over the top of the soup.
--Butter- or bacon fat-toasted small croutons or coarse bread crumbs from a good country or sourdough loaf.
--Crumbled bacon (or a fine dice of it; our homemade bacon doesn't tend to crumble).

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

I take it you roast the squash, apples etc. to just get a pinch more flavor out of them? The reason I ask is that I am usually not inclined toward that extra step (I have a really great tin-lined copper pot where my soups start: it's great for low slow pan-roasting of cubed squash) but am always open to suggestions: the winter is long and the squash is numerous.

But I agree: it's all about the toppings, innit?

Ordered your book, hoping to see it soon!

Nancy @ rivertreekitchen said...

I love the idea of tart apple to balance all that sweet rich squash. And I couldn't agree more--salty-crunchy garnishes make everything better. We're topping everything with toasted, crumbled prosciutto lately. I'll be giving this a try soon.

angie said...

Hi Brett,

I'm in Wisc and guess what is at the top of my reading list tonight? Yep, your book. Both Bill and I are excited to peruse it.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: Yes, I wanted to get some browning on the squash for a deeper flavor; not sure if it made that much difference, though. Your excellent soup pot might do a better job of it. Little butter-toasted croutons of homemade sourdough are my essential garnish; they'd make a feast out of lukewarm dishwater!

Hello Nancy: The apple did provide a nice balance, and a little goes a long way. Most of our Bide-A-Wee apples are quite tart, and I put two in the recipe to start with--too much! Had to dilute it with more squash, cream, etc. Fried and crumbled prosciutto? That sounds fantastic. Have you tried the La Quercia (Iowa) speck? It is amazing stuff.

Hey, Angie: Thanks for buying the book! I truly hope that you enjoy it and find some good stuff to cook from it.

Cheers, all~ Brett