For many people, the point of a restaurant is to avoid the chores of cooking and cleaning up. Yep, been there, done that. But did you know they can also be a source of inspiration?
Last Saturday night, both of my daughters were at friends’ houses, so my husband and I had that rarest of experiences — a night alone. We decided to eat out at a nearby Moroccan French restaurant where I ordered the evening’s soup, butternut squash with a mushroom and pomegranate seed garnish. As I was eating it, my first thought was “this is delicious,” and my second thought was “I can make this at home!”
The following Monday, I got to work. I pored through my recipe books and surfed the web for inspiration. It turns out that butternut squash is perfect for soups because of its smooth, almost creamy texture and a flavor profile that goes well with any number of herbs and spices. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse, filled with fiber as well as beta-carotene (which contributes to eye health and the maintenance of the body’s tissues and immune functions) and vitamin C (which is an important antioxidant).
For my soup, I wanted to keep things simple. I chose onion as my base and chicken stock as my liquid. I decided to play down butternut squash’s natural sweetness by using thyme, bay, and nutmeg as my seasonings. I enhanced its natural creaminess by cooking it in the stock (instead of roasting it in the oven beforehand) and by adding a little half-and-half at the end. For the optional garnish, I included sautéed cremini mushrooms like those that topped the bowl I had Saturday night, but I substituted pine nuts for the harder-to-find pomegranate seeds.
The result? A silky smooth soup bursting with pure butternut squash flavor that not only tastes good but is good for you.
It’s also extremely versatile. You can vary the ingredients and convenience factor by using frozen squash in place of fresh, water or vegetable stock in place of the chicken stock, and a nut or coconut milk in place of the half-and-half. (I made a second batch using three packages of frozen squash cubes and water. Initially it seemed a tad thinner than the first batch, which I attribute to the use of water rather than chicken stock, but that thinness went away when I added the half-and-half.) Like my Weeknight Tomato Soup, it can be made several days ahead or even frozen. Most importantly at this time of year, it can be dressed up or down depending on whether you want to use it as the first course of a holiday meal or as reliable weeknight staple.
Butternut Squash Soup with Mushroom and Pine Nut Garnish
3 – 4 pounds fresh butternut squash or 3 10-ounce packages frozen winter squash
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in medium dice
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups water*
½ teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon thyme, dried
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup half-and-half
Garnish Ingredients (Optional)
½ pound cremini mushrooms
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
Directions for Soup
1. If using fresh squash, prepare it as follows: Using a heavy knife, cut ½-inch slices off the top and bottom of the squash. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the skin off the squash. Cut the peeled squash in half lengthwise and, using a spool, scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp from the cavity in the lower portion of each squash half. Discard the top and bottom, peelings, seeds, and pulp. Cut the cleaned halves into 2-inch pieces.
2. In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil just until it starts to shimmer. Add the diced onion and ¼ teaspoon of salt and sauté over medium heat until the onion is translucent and starting to become golden (about 10 minutes). Add the squash (whether fresh or frozen) and stir until the pieces are coated with olive oil, about 3 minutes longer. Add the chicken stock, water, thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, and remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt, and stir gently to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the squash is very tender, 25-30 minutes. (If using frozen squash, the pieces may stick together until they have thawed. If that occurs, stir once or twice while the soup is simmering.)
3. When the squash has finished cooking and is very soft, remove the pot from the heat and let cool about 15 minutes. Fish out the bay leaf and discard. Puree the soup using either a standing blender (in batches if necessary) or an immersion blender until the soup is velvety smooth. If using a standing blender, return the soup to the pot.
4. Place the half-and-half in a small bowl, ladle about a half cup of the pureed soup into the half-and-half, and stir gently to combine. Return the half-and-half-soup mixture to the pot, and bring the soup back to a gentle simmer. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
5. Serve the soup hot (garnished with the mushrooms and pine nuts if using them).
*Use this amount of water as a guide. Depending on the size of the squash (if using fresh) and your preferences, increase this amount for a thinner soup or decrease it for a thicker soup.
Make Ahead: You can make this recipe ahead through step 3 and either refrigerate or freeze the butternut squash soup mixture. When ready to use, thaw (if frozen), stir in the half-and-half, and then heat to a gentle simmer. Serve hot.
Directions for Optional Garnish
While the soup is cooking, clean and trim the mushrooms, and slice each one into 5-6 slices. In a saucepan or non-stick skillet, heat the olive oil just until it starts to shimmer. Add the sliced mushrooms and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the water in the mushrooms is released and has evaporated (about 8 minutes). At that point, the mushrooms will start to stick to the pan. Add the pine nuts, and stir the mushroom-pine nut mixture occasionally for another 3-5 minutes. (Be careful not to burn the pine nuts.) Set aside until the soup is ready to be served. (The garnish can also be made beforehand and refrigerated. When you are ready to use it, remove it from the refrigerator and briefly warm it in a skillet or the microwave oven.