Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Middle Eastern "BAM" and roasted butternut squash soup

Let’s face it: butternut squash is funny looking.  With the fat part down, it looks like the start of a cartoon character.  With the fat part up, it’s hard to resist driving a nail into the wall with it.

But, it’s plentiful in the winter and offers that rustic, homey flavor a cold winter day cries out for.  If a comfy old flannel shirt had a flavor it would taste like butternut squash.

I haven’t just posted a recipe in a while, so here is one of my favorite soups along with a spice mixture I developed after investigating Middle Eastern cooking a couple years back.  I call the mixture “Middle Eastern BAM” after the popular invective Emeril utters when he tosses his “Essence” creole seasoning around.  That doesn’t make this a Middle Eastern soup.  Middle Eastern BAM (or “MEB” for short) comes in handy for numerous things where you want to add lots of subtle flavors.  You might also try it to season the flour before you dredge mild-flavored whitefish varieties.  You can also substitute other vegetables like carrots for the squash in this recipe.

1 tbsp of the following:
Sweet paprika
Dried thyme
Dried oregano
Ground coriander

2 tsp of the following:
Ground ginger
Ground cumin

1 tsp of the following:
Ground cinnamon
Ground cardamom

Shake it all together.  I do not put salt and pepper in the MEB so I can control that in whatever I’m cooking.  Also, almost anything I use this with already has some fresh onion and garlic in it.  Otherwise, you would want to add some onion powder and garlic powder to the mix.  If you like heat, you could add a touch of cayenne, but I actually don’t recommend it.  The Middle Eastern cuisine that inspired the mixture is not geared toward heat but lots and lots of subtle nuances.

The Soup
1 medium or 2 small butternut squash
1 medium onion, chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
~ 2 tbsp MEB
4-5 cups chicken stock
~ 1/3 cup half and half
Honey, optional and if needed to balance sweetness
Some fresh herbs to finish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel, seed, and chop the butternut squash. This squash has a thick peel and if you have to work up a sweat to peel it, get thee a decent peeler anon!  Put the squash on a cookie sheet and give it a minor toss with just a bit of olive oil.  Into the oven with it until a fork slides into the chunks like a warm welcome at a friend’s house; if it becomes a tearful, mushy welcome at Aunt Maude’s family reunion then you cooked it a bit long but the soup will likely be fine.

Meanwhile, start sautéing your onion in a decent-sized stockpot/saucier or what have you.  When soft, add the garlic and continue sautéing for a minute (the garlic should be quite fragrant).  Add your MEB (you are not required to shout “BAM!” when you do so, but don’t knock it till you try it).  Continue sautéing, stirring frequently for roughly two minutes.  For those of us with grandparents of European descent, it might sound strange to toast the spices this way rather than add them after the liquid.  In fact, we are the strange ones on the planet on this point.

Anyway, by this time your squash should be ready.  Take it out of the oven and put it in with the onions.  Give it a few stirs, enough to coat it a bit with the spice mixture, then add your stock and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer a bit, just long enough that all your ingredients can get on a first-name basis with each other.  Then – and this is very important unless you were planning on getting plastic surgery anyway – turn off the heat.  Check to make sure you’re not getting bubbles any longer.  Now, take out your immersion blender and puree the soup (I like a little texture left in mine, but only a little). 

A regular blender or even a potato masher will suffice if you have no immersion blender (add that to the list when you go to get a decent peeler).  There is no specific worry about plastic surgery in this case, but keep your hand on the lid of the blender or you will be re-painting your ceiling (on the plus side, spinning and aerating hot liquids can be a great physics lesson for the kids if you have nothing else to do with your time and money).

Return it all to an ever so gentle simmer and add the half and half, a little at a time.  Let that simmer a bit and then taste it.  The soup should have rich flavors that kind of finish with just a shadow of sweetness.  If the sweetness is missing, add a bit of honey but don’t go overboard.  Sweet is just one of many flavors here.

To make a mid-week meal, I will often serve the soup alongside open-faced sandwiches made of whatever lunchmeat and cheese we have and then run them under the broiler to brown the cheese and crisp the bread.  Together, it’s a tasty and filling combo.


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