Sunday, November 4, 2012

Spicy Roasted Butternut Squash Soup


Back in the day, boys in junior high school were shuffled off to shop class to learn to make wooden plaques and mantle clock housings, while girls were sent to home economics so that we could learn to sew aprons and bake cookies. Leaving aside for another time the issue of pigeonholing children, today I was thinking, with humor and more than a little fondness, about that long-ago home ec class. 

I was terrible at it. By this, I don't mean to say just that the seams on my apron were a little crooked, or that my cookies were occasionally a tad burned. I mean I stunk. I was so bad that I once overheard my teacher (we'll just call her, "Mrs. X") say to my mother during a conference, "I know she's trying. I can tell she is. It's just that, well, she seems totally incapable of learning these skills. I have no idea what to do. I've never encountered a child this...this...this..."

My mother had a lot of these sort of parent/teacher conferences about me.

I felt kind of sorry for the teacher, who was actually a very caring, gentle, and exceptionally patient woman. She retired at the end of that year, along with several other of my teachers. I've always worried a little about the timing of that.

Anyway, I was thinking about home ec, and in particular, remembering one meal we were tasked with making. I was partnered up with my best friends, Rebecca M and Pam A, and we were all three excited because we were going to make Mini Pizzas. Cookies were OK, but they weren't really all that interesting. Pizzas, on the other hand, out in the late 1960's hinterlands of small-town New Mexico, were exotic. (If this seems strange, you must realize that the now-ubiquitous Pizza Hut opened its first store in 1958, and had fewer than 500 restaurants in the late '60s. Roswell was too small and too out of the way to warrant one.)

As exotic as pizzas were, Mrs. X felt they were well within our culinary reach, and so she prepared mimeographed recipes for each team to use.

Now, for those of you who have never heard of mimeographed print, suffice it to say that it was a smelly, inky, smudgy precursor of today's copier machines. Each sheet was created from a single inky master that was stretched over a drum, which was in turn cranked by hand to print on sheets of paper that fed into the machine. It was a handy, relatively inexpensive way of making multiple copies, and for efficiency, it was a step above copying multiples by feather quill and an ink well. The results were adequate, though there could often be some trouble reading the print if you happened to get one of the sheets toward the end of the run.

Which we did. 

One of the things we learned in our home economics class were abbreviations for standard measurements. You probably know these, too, right? For example, a lower case "c" mean "cup," and "qt" means "quart," and so on. Well, you might also remember that an upper case "T" stands for "tablespoon," and this distinguishes it from a lower case "t," which means "teaspoon," and you would never, ever want to get those two mixed up.

I know what you are thinking! You have jumped ahead of me and have guessed that our team mistook a lower "t" to mean "tablespoon," thereby wrecking our measurements and putting either too much or too little of a key ingredient into our exotic pizzas.

And you would be wrong. Do you think I'd learned nothing at all in home ec? It is true that I was generally incompetent at the skills, but I could remember simple abbreviations, for goodness sake.

However, it happens that if a mimeograph is a little less than clear, and the top hat of a lower case "t" failed to print, it looks an awful lot like a lower case "c." Which could be a problem, if the measurement in question concerns garlic powder.

Rebecca and Pam suspected immediately that there was a mistake on the recipe sheet. After all, Mrs. X, ever efficient and never wasteful, had always provided each team with just enough ingredients to require us to practice measuring, but never so much that there was a lot left over. And as it happened, we had only about a tablespoon or so of garlic powder at hand. 

I, on the other hand, convinced of the infallibility of the printed word, insisted that we were supposed to put in a whole cup of garlic powder in the tomato sauce, and if there had been some sort of slip up as far as the amount of garlic powder we'd been given, well, then, we were just going to have to improvise. And so we went to each of the other cooking teams and asked them to give us any garlic powder they had left over.

Why it never occurred to me that we were the only team putting a whole cup in, I'll never know. I do remember Pam and Rebecca looking at me skeptically and with no small amount of alarm as I insisted I was right about this.

I also don't know why we didn't ask Mrs. X about the snafu, but I have a vague memory of her being out of the room, and since we were on a tight schedule, there was some pressure to go ahead and not wait for her return to clarify things.

The first indication we had that things had gone awry came when, upon her return to the classroom, Mrs. X said, "What's that smell?"

I never got to taste the Mini Pizzas, since they disappeared sometime during the evacuation of the classroom. I'm sure Mrs. X had to throw them out, though I don't remember her doing so. I do remember her, some time later, holding her head and looking strangely weepy.

Since that day, I've had something of an aversion to following recipes exactly. I'm also a little afraid of garlic salt.

The aversion to recipes is one of the reasons I like Tamra E. Adler's book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, which was first recommended to me by my friend Sarai Brinker. Adler seems not to follow recipes at all--instead throwing some of this, or that, or whatever is leftover in the refrigerator into the oven and letting the roasting, or stewing, or whatever do all the work of figuring out how much is too much or too little. And as far as I can tell, she never uses garlic salt, since she never mentions it. My friends, that is my kind of cooking. 

When I first read this book back in the summer, I felt like I'd finally found a manifesto for how I feel about cooking. At the time, of course, I was cooking on the grill almost exclusively, since we were waiting on our kitchen remodel to finish. In a brilliant bit of cosmic irony, I was cooking mostly pizzas.

It was hard to read Adler's section on roasting vegetables, though, since I didn't have an oven. The grill was a life-saver, but I was lonely for what only an oven can do.

This butternut squash soup is in honor of both the book and those days of waiting. It not only involves roasting vegetables, it is very much an anti-recipe recipe. Basically, it goes something like this: take a bunch of root vegetables, roast them, puree them with stock, add a little cream, and voila!

If you insist on a recipe, however, here is a quasi-one that is not very complicated, dedicated to the long-suffering Mrs. X, to whom I owe gratitude for not giving up on me (note that I do not risk using abbreviations on measurements):

Cut up the following into ~1" cubes:

1 butternut squash, peeled and de-seeded
1/4-1/2 small onion
1/2 cup leek
2 red potatoes

Add 2 cloves garlic

Toss these in olive oil, salt (~1/2 teaspoon), and fresh pepper to taste)

Roast at 375 F until tender.

Blend with 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock. (I use an immersion blender directly in a stock pot, but a regular blender or food processor will work if done in small batches.)

Add 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder

Add 1/2 cup heavy cream

Bring to low rolling boil; immediately reduce heat to simmer

Salt to taste (I add a two-finger pinch at a time, tasting until I get what I want)

Serve it up.


The potatoes, cream, and chipotle powder all work to offset the sweetness of the butternut squash, so I would call this more a savory dish than a sweet one. The best part about it is that, like Adler, you can add this, or that, or whatever to it and it will still probably come out great.

And you won't need to worry about a "t" looking like a "c."


Friday, November 2, 2012

The girls are back, and thinking about life



My big worry is that by the time I've lived long enough to have it all figured out,
I'll have forgotten what "it" is.