Monday, November 15, 2010

Butternut Squash Soup

Five years ago, last month, a woman named Shauna commented on this blog.  I had just begun to write again after the accident that changed my life—when I was hit by a car while jogging and fractured my skull and pelvis, tore the tendons in my left knee, and lost my sense of smell.  I began to write again after the headaches and vertigo receded enough to let me focus my eyes on a computer screen for more than a few minutes.  As it is, I don’t remember much of that autumn.  So I’m glad I did decide to again write on this space, even if my attempts were shaky, sugar-coated efforts to convince myself that I was okay.  I’m glad that I heard from Shauna.  

Shauna wrote to tell me about an experience she had with a car accident, and how it ultimately changed her life.  For the better, she wrote.  For the better? I remember thinking.  No way.  It would be the same for me, she said.  “Your smell will come back.  The pain will ease.  And you’ll be a better cook, a better writer, and a much more alive person once you’ve survived this.  Time, my dear.  Time.” 

The searing pain that I experienced for weeks after the accident, the kind that enveloped and consumed me, radiating up from my bones, had very recently ceased to be a part of my day-to-day when I heard from Shauna that first time.  It was more like a light fog around the periphery of my experience, a constant low thrum easy to ignore.  Enough time had passed for that, at least.

I wanted to believe that she was right.  But I couldn’t really move, I could barely read, and I certainly couldn’t smell.  I knew I wouldn’t be able cook, not in the way I wanted.  Shauna’s words were kind but also kind of crazy, I thought.  But later, in an email, she passed along a quote: 

"Let everything happen to you,
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final."

It’s a quote from Rilke.  She had it taped next to her computer, she said.  I copied it onto a yellow Post It and stuck it onto the top ridge of my laptop, too.  Then, whenever I sat down to write, I paused to read it again.  And though I’m not a “quote person,” not a saying person, not even really a Rilke person, you know what?  It helped.  That little reminder (nothing lasts forever!) helped me to move on and through.  Today—now years since I last experienced that kind of pain and believed that I would never, ever be okay—it still helps. 

This is a roundabout way of getting to my point: Shauna, as my grandmother would say, is a mensch.

And Shauna has been up to a lot these past few years.  She’s been writing.  Cooking, too.  Her second book, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, just hit the bookstore shelves across the U.S.  Today she has rounded up a group of bloggers to share some gluten-free recipes for Thanksgiving.  And these days, I have a lot for which to give thanks.

Now, I eat plenty of gluten, a type of protein found in most grains and cereals.  If I could be a healthy human on a diet that consisted solely of bread and cheese, I would.  I’ve never had to contend with the restrictions of those with celiac disease like Shauna.  But I’d like to share a recipe in her honor, one for my favorite butternut squash soup, which is completely gluten free.

I’ve made this soup for my family's Thanksgiving dinner for years.  I made a batch last weekend, too, and served it as the first course of a dinner party.  It’s light and creamy, rich with both roasted and simmered squash, and with just a bite of pepper.  Thomas Keller, who originally published this recipe in Bouchon, serves it with browned butter and little leaves of frizzled sage.  Though delicious, I find those additions a bit too fussy.  I think it’s perfect with a dollop of cold nutmeg crème fraiche plopped right onto its steamy orange belly.  

Butternut Squash Soup with Nutmeg Crème Fraiche
Adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Bouchon

1 3 – 3 ½ pound squash
2 tablespoons canola oil
Salt and pepper
2 sage sprigs
1 cup thinly sliced leeks, white and light green parts only
½ cup thinly sliced carrots
½ cup thinly sliced shallots
½ cup thinly sliced onions
6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 tablespoons honey
6 cups vegetable stock
1 bouquet garni, which consists of 8 thyme sprigs, 2 Italian parsley sprigs, 2 bay leaves, ½ teaspoon black peppercorns, all placed in cheesecloth and tied up in a bundle with kitchen twine
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup crème fraiche
pinch of nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Cut the neck off the butternut squash, and set aside.  Cut the bulb in half, scoop out and discard seeds.  Brush with 1 ½ teaspoons canola oil, on both the inside and out.  Season liberally with salt and pepper.  Tuck a sprig of sage within each open bulb, place the cut side down on the baking sheet, and roast for an hour.

Remove the squash from oven and let cool.  Scoop out the flesh and set aside.  Meanwhile, peel the skin off of the rest of the squash.  Cut its flesh into ½ inch pieces.  You should have around 4 cups.

Place the remaining tablespoon or so of canola oil into a large stockpot set over medium high heat.  Add the leeks, carrot, shallots, and onions.  Cook, stirring frequently, for about 6 minutes.  Add the cubes of raw squash, the garlic, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper.  Cook for 3 minutes, stirring.  Then, add the stock and the bouquet garni and bring the pot to a simmer.  Cook for around 15 minutes, until the squash is tender.  Now, add the reserved roasted squash and simmer together for around 30 minutes, to let the flavors meld.  Remove from heat and take out the bouquet garni.

Now, puree the soup in a blender in batches, or, as I do, in the pot with an immersion blender.  Thomas Keller recommends that you run the soup through a strainer to remove any chunks or impurities.  I don’t think it’s necessary.  But do taste the soup for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste.

To complete: place the crème fraiche in a bowl and whisk it vigorously until it holds small little peaks.  Season with nutmeg to taste.  Place a dollop of the crème fraiche onto the top of every bowl of soup.  Enjoy!

Updated 11/25/10: The 4 tablespoons of butter in the recipe can be used in the final stages of preparing this soup.  Originally, I omitted this step, though kept the butter in the ingredient list (apologies!).  To use: Before serving, melt the butter in a pan over medium heat.  Watch it carefully as the foam subsides, and then turns a golden brown.  Don't leave it on the heat for too long, just long enough to color and smell nutty and rich.  Pour the browned butter into the pot of soup and stir, or spoon it individually over each bowl.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lemon Tart

On Sunday night Matt and I threw a dinner party.  There were eight guests in total.  They trickled into our home in twos and threes soon after dusk, and we crowded around the two tables pushed together in the center of the living room floor.  It was a big crowd for our already small apartment, which seemed immediately to shrink in size.  

Most of our guests were friends of Matt’s from graduate school.  They came along with their husbands, wives, or dates, and, in one case, the cutest one-year-old little boy.  Many were in the military—active duty officers who have, like Matt, been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or both.  Even though I’ve been with Matt for three years, including a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, and have been spending inordinate amounts of time thinking about the military, about military families, and what it means to serve, I will admit: I was intimidated.  What do you cook for a group of people who have done so much?  Who have seen things I can hardly imagine?

As it turns out, I cooked what I would normally cook for an overwhelming number of people crammed into a small space: dishes easy to make ahead.  Butternut squash soup.  Coq au vin.  An arugula salad and a bunch of crusty bread.  To finish: a lemon tart and a plate of chocolate bouchon.

As I sit here writing this post now, days later, I’m thinking about why, exactly, I felt so intimidated by this dinner party.  In the week leading up to it, I focused my anxiety on the menu.  But I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it.  After all, I’ve cooked for that many people many times before.  I've cooked all those dishes before.  But never for so many veterans.  Not for their families, too.  And as today is Veterans Day, I think that’s something important to address.

My experience of war and deployment has been a solitary one.  When Matt was in Afghanistan, I lived alone in Brooklyn.  A hip neighborhood in Brooklyn.  As far from the front lines as one can go.  I’m almost embarrassed to say that before I met Matt, I knew no one who had fought in these wars, which have raged now for almost a decade.  I know I’m not the only one.

Until we moved to Boston where Matt met several fellow students from the Army, I had never spent any time around a military community.  I’d never really met people who understood the ups and downs of deployment, the triumphs and struggles of those who serve.  And for all of my talk about the disconnect between those in the military and civilians in America today—I wrote a little about it here; there have been other great articles published, like this one here—there I was, embodying that very separation with my jittery nerves.  I mean, these men and women are warriors.  They have experienced things I cannot comprehend.

This blog isn’t about the distance between the military and civilians during these wars, I know.  It’s about food and smell, and the memories and pleasure that come from them both.  But this is universal: there is little better than a group of people who feel connected, sitting around a table full of food.

And, as it turned out, there was nothing for me to worry about on Sunday night.  Everything went well.  The food was good and the company, even better.  Our guests were a hilarious bunch, really.  I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. 

I’d like to write about all of the recipes from that night, because I love every single one.  Maybe I will sometime soon.  But to start: the lemon tart.  It’s a simple though intensely flavored dessert that I’ve made countless times with a recipe from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  The crust, which is made of pine nuts and butter, comes together easily in a Cuisinart.  The filling, a tart and creamy lemon sabayon, takes some arm power and a whisk, but ends up a beautiful pale yellow, light as a cloud.  

Lemon Tart
Adapted, barely, from Bouchon

Lemon Sabayon: 
2 large eggs, cold 
2 large egg yolks, cold 
3/4 cup sugar 
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice 
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Pine Nut Crust:
You will only need one third of the dough from this recipe.  But with only one egg, it's hard to reduce the quantity of the finished product.  Freeze the extra for another time.
10 ounces (2 cups) pine nuts, (I toasted mine in a dry skillet beforehand)
1/3 cup sugar
1 pound (3 cups) all-purpose flour
8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the crust:
In a food processor, pulse the pine nuts a few times.  Add the sugar and flour and continue to pulse until the nuts are finely ground.  Transfer to a large bowl.

Add the butter, egg, and vanilla extract and mix to incorporate all the ingredients (either by hand or with the paddle attachment in an electric mixer).  Divide the dough into three equal parts and wrap each in plastic.  Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes before using.  The two extra dough bundles can be frozen for up to a month.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Butter and flour a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.  Refrigerate the pan while the oven warms up.  

Remove the tart pan from the refrigerator.  Using your fingertips, press the pine nut dough evenly over the bottom and sides of the pan.  Trim off any excess.

Bake the crust for 10 - 15 minutes and then rotate and bake for an additional 10 - 15 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.  Remove from the oven and let cool.

For the sabayon:
Bring a couple inches of water to boil in a pot that is just slightly bigger than the bowl in which you plan to make the sabayon. Meanwhile, in a large metal bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks, and sugar for 1 minute, or until smooth.

Set the bowl over the pot of boiling water and, using a large whisk, whip the mixture while you turn the bowl (for even heating).  After about 2 minutes, when the eggs are foamy and have thickened, add one-third of the lemon juice.  Whisk vigorously.  When the mixture thickens again, add another one-third of the juice.  Whisk until thickened.  Add the final one-third of the juice.  Continue to whisk vigorously, still turning the bowl, until the mixture is thick and light in color and the whisk leaves a trail in the bottom of the bowl.  This should take around 10 minutes total.

Turn off the heat but leave the bowl over the water.  Whisk in the butter, one piece at a time.  If the sabayon loosens, don't worry: it will thicken as it cools.  Pour the warm sabayon into the tart crust, and place on a baking sheet.

Preheat the broiler.  While the sabayon is still warm, place under the broiler.  Keep a very close watch, leaving the door open and rotating frequently for even browning.  This will only take a few seconds.  Remove the tart from the oven and let sit for at least an hour.  Serve at room temperature.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Season To Taste

Something exciting arrived in the mail today: the first galley copies of my book

I found the package sitting on the steps of my apartment building when I arrived home from the local library this afternoon.  I picked it up, and brought it upstairs.  At my kitchen table, I ripped open the envelope, pulled out the first copy, and held it in my hands.  I could feel the weight of its 320 pages, which smelled of fresh ink and crisp paper, on my palms.  My name is on the front.  My picture is on the back.  It’s real.  Please wait a moment while I hyperventilate. 

So here it is.  Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.  It’s being published by the wonderful folks at Ecco/HarperCollins.  Though it won’t officially be out until next summer (so far away, I know!), I’d love to share the jacket cover.  It’s original art by Janet Hill, a talented painter who lives in Canada and has a wonderful blog of her own.  I couldn't be happier.  

Wednesday, November 03, 2010