Monday, November 05, 2007

More than one way to skin a squash

I've always been one to follow instructions. I was a teacher's pet in grade school, and the one time I got caught in the 5th grade for bathroom graffiti, I felt absolutely awful and cried for hours. Naturally, this tendency to stick to the rules extended to a lot of my daily practices, cooking included.

I'm a HUGE fan of cookbooks, and read them the way that pruny beach ladies devour romance novels. It has taken years of practice to veer from recipes and tweak them to my tastes. I found myself improvising more while living in LA, when I didn't feel like trekking through traffic to the grocery store and/or money was tight. I made do with onions vs. leeks, chicken vs. cornish hen, packaged vs. fresh, depending on the recipe of course.

But any good kitchen girl (or boy) improvises every now and then, especially if we're feeling particularly frisky.

Early in my surgery recovery mode last year, I couldn't do much but read books with pictures and big font. A family friend lent me the brilliant Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home. The legendary Julia Child and Jacques Pepin collaborated on collecting a variety of classic French dishes and techniques, and variations on those techniques. The book is set up to read like three books: the left side of each page is Julia's opinion, the right side is Jacques', and in the center are the recipes themselves. They each have their own "best" ways of doing things, and take light-hearted jabs at each other's techniques. It was interesting to realize that even these two culinary powerhouses don't agree on a lot of things. There really is no single right or wrong way to roast a chicken or season mashed potatoes or bake a gateau or construct a tart.

Julia and Jacques ultimately recognize that even they aren't the be-all, end-all authorities on a genre of cooking that they'd seemingly mastered. Talk about eye-opening. I have to remind myself constantly that, like anything, cooking is ultimately subjective. People do things or like things because it's what they know, it's what they've done for years, it's how they grew up, it's just their taste. I think Olive Garden is putrid, but it's a favorite restaurant for so many others. I avoid margarine like the plague, but it's all that some people know.

I find that keeping subjectivity in mind is really freeing; it's like giving myself permission to play. Something as simple as a butternut squash soup becomes a playground for color and palate. The coriander and nutmeg gave it a gentle kick, but I was looking for something to complete it. When I opened the cupboard to start sniffing around, a bottle of white truffle oil that my mom brought back from Seattle was staring back at me. Just a drizzle of the oil, and it was the kind of soup that made me wanna say, "got-damn!" It's the perfect savory winter treat and travels well, Thermos-style.

To accompany this, I made a sandwich of roasted pork tenderloin, Jarlsberg, mixed greens, sliced pear and tomatoes from the garden on sourdough; and roasted okra (a brilliant recipe from the Gourmet Cookbook). It was a good day. It's November and the tomato plant is still growing like crazy. It's been a weird year for produce, and I think we have global warming to thank for that.

A note: Pureed soups are an excellent arena in which to experiment; this is the perfect example of "fool-proof", as it's ultimately a mix of whatever you think tastes great in whatever consistency you find appealing. It's all about you.

Here's my take:

Butternut Squash Soup with White Truffle Oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 medium onions, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 leek, sliced (white part only)
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into small chunks
3-4 cups chicken broth (or water), more if needed
1 teaspoon coriander
salt & white pepper to taste
a few gratings of nutmeg
fresh parsley
1-2 teaspoons of white truffle oil to taste

Heat olive oil and butter in a big pot over medium-low heat. Add onions, carrots and leek and cook until onions are soft and golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in butternut squash and coriander, cooking for another minute or two. Pour in chicken broth or water, enough to cover the squash. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, turn the heat to low and simmer until the squash and carrots are nice and tender, about 20 minutes.

Take the pot off the heat and puree the soup, either in batches in a conventional blender, or (carefully) with a hand blender. It would be wise to wear an apron at this point so as not to get soup on your brand new T-shirt. Add more liquid if you think the soup is too thick.

Season with salt and white pepper, grate in a bit of fresh nutmeg and stir. Add truffle oil by the quarter-teaspoon to taste, stirring and tasting after each addition. Good truffle oil is extremely concentrated and it takes very little to flavor the entire pot. Serve each bowl with a generous pinch of chopped parsley.

Another note: If you don't have truffle oil handy, I imagine that one could add a handful of crimini mushrooms to the veggie saute. Alternately, the more savory and pungent shiitake might be worth a whirl.