Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Historical Imagining: Butternut Squash and Heirloom Apple Soup

As many of you know, I'm a graduate student in the study of History. (Editor's Note: I would share at which school I study, but for the sake of half-hearted internet anonymity, I'll be omitting the name of the school here.)

To the point, last week, my Narrative History class took a field trip to the site of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on December 25, 1776. It's a picturesque area, and our tour encompassed several sites, including the crossing location itself:

We also visited the now-drained Delaware Canal, and, perhaps of greatest interest to me, the former impromptu military hospital located at what is now known as the Thompson-Neely House.

As part of our visit, we were to write a brief "historical narrative," and I (and my fellow classmates) used a great deal of creativity to fulfill the spirit of the project. As part of my paper, I described what would have been a standard ration for a Continental soldier -- a bowl of soup and a few shreds of salted, preserved pork. As I wrote, I wondered how best to get into the voice of my subject, how best to share his perspective. I had walked his paces, I had read of his (or at least his real-life counterparts') actions -- what if I could taste what he tasted, eat as he ate?

And so, dear reader, I arrived at the idea for today's recipe. Now, no, it's not exactly the soup that I wrote about in my paper. In all honesty, the thin broth I had prescribed for my hypothetical infantryman would have been fairly flavorless and bland. As much as I would like to share in his exact experience, my wallet, and your palate, I imagined, would more appreciate a modern analog, an update, a recipe with a pedigree as old (and, in truth, much older) than our country itself. All that aside, it's butternut squash soup! With apples! Who wouldn't like that?

Butternut Squash and Heirloom Apple Soup
Makes Four Quarts of Soup

3-4 pounds fresh Butternut Squash, peeled and quartered.
(about one large Butternut Squash)

1.5 pounds Vidalia Onions (or other sweet onions)
(about one large Onion, or two medium onions)

2 cups tart Apples of your choice

2 Tablespoons fresh Sage

1 Tablespoon fresh Thyme

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

2 Tablespoons Butter (unsalted, preferably)

10 Cups Chicken Broth

Salt and Pepper (to taste, but be generous)

Heavy Cream and Molasses (optional, to garnish)
Like I said, a very large butternut squash (for scale, that's a 10-inch chef's knife). The total amount of butternut squash can be fooled around with - if you want a thicker soup, or something more like a puree, use more squash. For a thinner, broth-based soup, go smaller. Consider 3-4 pounds a good range to play around in.

Here's the squash, apple, and onion, peeled and ready to go. Note how small the apples are -- these are considerably tart heirloom apples from our local farmer's market, although any reasonably tart apple will do. You can even use crab apples, although, if you do, I'd add a little maple syrup or brown sugar to taste once the soup gets to the boiling state. For that matter, a little maple syrup or brown sugar might be a nice touch anyway. I'll leave it up to you. Slather everything here with the two tablespoons of olive oil, generously coat with salt and black pepper, and place the sheet pan into a pre-heated 400 F degree oven for about 60 minutes (or until soft), flipping the veggies about halfway through.

A nice view of the finished squash. Pretty good-looking, eh?

You'll want to chop up your veggies to a small, chunked size. If you've done your job and baked everything well, you should be able to easily cut everything up on the sheet pan, transferring the whole mess into the pot with the help of a spatula.

What's next? It's time to add the chicken stock. Now, many people in the world of food religiously advocate the use of homemade chicken stock only in all recipes where it's called for. Ina Garten, retired White House nuclear policy analyst and current Food Network host, is particularly fervent on this point.

I'll have to respectfully disagree. Sure, it's enjoyable to make soup from the bones of last night's roasted chicken, but who has the time, stove space, and budget to sacrifice three chickens for the good of six quarts of chicken stock? Furthermore, take a closer look at her recipe -- dill, parsley, an entire head of garlic -- these are all flavors that will compete fervently with the delicate, mellow taste of the squash. And the squash really is the point here, isn't it? If anything, a softer, cleaner tasting chicken stock, like you can purchase in a store, has more of the flavor profile we're looking for. So go, with my blessing, be cheap, and buy an armful of 59-cent, generic-brand chicken stock. Get low-sodium if you're really worried. I promise you, everything will be just fine.

Add the stock into the pot, toss in the thyme and sage, and get that baby simmering.

Look at it go! Continue to cook for about 30 minutes.

In small batches, transfer the soup to a food processor, adding the two tablespoons of butter in small pieces. Puree everything. At this point, you'll get an idea for the soup's consistency. If it's too thick for you, add more stock and place the pureed soup back on the stove for a few minutes. If it's too thin, put the pureed soup back on the stove and simmer it down until it's reduced to the thicker consistency that you desire. If it's fine, then just eat it already!

Ooh, but hold on, actually -- to really bring the soup up to the next level, a reasonable splash of heavy cream and a drizzle of molasses can really add depth and roundness to the dish. The cream, in particular, is strongly suggested.

Incidentally, this soup freezes exceptionally well, which is quite nice for those cold January afternoons when you don't feel like cooking. Just pop the frozen brick of soup into a saucepan, add a few Tablespoons of water, and simmer it back into deliciousness. One note -- if you do freeze this, do it before you add the cream, as it won't defrost well.

Okay, enough blabbing! A photo of the final product:

Now, certainly, this is much nicer than any ration handed out to the members of Washington's Army during the cold winter of 1776, but I think it fulfills the spirit of the exercise, a chance to connect with our country's past, to eat, pause, and, particularly at this time of year, give thanksgiving.

As always, something a little tongue-in-cheek to send you out the door...

Music: The Beatles -- "Revolution"


  1. Hey! I love reading about the historical significance of food. Great post!
    This is soup absolutely gorgeous. Would you mind if I made it and posted your recipe on A Food Coma? Complete credit would go to you, of course.

  2. Absolutely -- knock yourself out. I do appreciate you asking first. Looking forward to reading your opinion of it on A Food Coma!

  3. I love squash a lot, It's good for the eyes. I always cook it with eggplant and string beans. Now with the soup recipe, am so excited to do it. Thanks for the interesting recipe and post

  4. I thought that squash is only during Halloween! Now I know that these are use for dishes as well. I hope that I could have a chance to taste it so I can tell the difference.


© 2012. Design by Main-Blogger - Blogger Template and Blogging Stuff