Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's raining and cold. Tonight I'm making soup.

I spent the afternoon clearing off my desk and organizing my papers--and my brain--for my latest book," Fresh & Fast Vegetarian." I've been working on this book fairly consistently for the last couple of months, but I don't feel as organized as I'd like to feel. The desk cleaning was almost an excuse to "clear" my head. I call it "percolating." It took me twice as long as I thought it would. But, what else is new? At a little before 6 o'clock I felt the first pangs of hunger, it was dark and rainy outside, and worse yet, there was a chill coming through my office door. I headed to the kitchen without a real plan. This doesn't happen often, but when it does I open cabinets and pull things from the refrigerator seeking inspiration while noodling around in my head are two important questions, "What do I feel like cooking?" and "What do I feel like eating?"

I had been trying to organize the soup chapter for part of the afternoon, therefore I had soup on my mind. It felt like a good antidote to the dark, cold, wet weather. I knew I had a perfectly shaped organic butternut squash waiting in the kitchen, but, alas I hadn't thought ahead to roast it while fiddling with my files, and the thought of peeling and chunking up that hard squash and getting soup on in the next hour just wasn't appealing. I guess all that desk clearing had tuckered me out. But, I couldn't get the idea of squash out of my head. So, what next?

I opened the pantry one more time and spotted a can of organic Trader Joe's pumpkin I had bought with pie in mind. Do I dare substitute canned pumpkin for fresh roasted or cooked butternut squash? Feeling frisky at the thought of the challenge, I took the plunge. I like to think in flavor profiles of three. I like odd numbers. The flavor profile of this soon to be soup would be pumpkin, tomato and ground cumin. It turned out to be a good bet, although I had some reservations about the canned pumpkin. But in the end it tasted great and was an easy solution for a quick pot of soup.

To help develop the flavors I added the ground cumin to the hot sauteed onion. Heating ground spices helps to bring out their complex taste, a little trick I learned from dabbling in Indian cooking. I also used my other trick of adding water to the sauteed vegetables to create a substitute for vegetable stock. Then I added the canned tomatoes (if fresh tomatoes were in season, I would have used them instead) and the pumpkin and let the mixture simmer. I pureed the soup with my immersion blender. What a fabulous tool that is. No more pouring hot soups into blender jars or food processor bowls and praying to avoid a spill. (I'm always too impatient to let them cool, although I always warn cooks in my books to cool the soup first.) But with the immersion blender one can plunge it into the pot of hot soup and let those tiny little blades rip. In a matter of a few minutes the chunky mixture is transformed into a smooth puree.

Then came time to taste. I liked the cumin and pumpkin flavor, both were subtle, but detectable. But I thought the tomato taste was a little weak. So I added a tablespoon of tomato paste. I'm a great believer in tomato paste. It is the not so secret ingredient in many of my recipes. It adds a pleasant salty edge, a bit of acid to brighten the taste, and a certain concentrated depth and richness to soups, sauces and stews. What I do to accommodate my frequent use of a tablespoon or two here and there is once a can (the small size is 6 ounces) is opened, I drop level tablespoons on a sheet of foil, place the foil in the freezer until the blobs of tomato paste are frozen hard, then peel them off and put them in a self closing quart size freezer bag. I always stash them in the same place in the freezer so I can find them easily when needed. I've been doing this for years. Not sure where I learned it, but it sure is a handy tip. (I have a cook friend who swears by tubes of tomato paste found in many grocers. That is another solution to keeping small amounts of tomato paste handy.)

But, back to the soup. The tomato paste and another 15 minutes simmering helped to smooth out the flavors in the soup. Just before serving I added a generous squirt of lemon juice to brighten the taste, just a little. One final taste and I thought the soup needed more of a "fat feel" in my mouth so I shredded some of my favorite Comte cheese and sprinkled it liberally over the top of the hot soup. It did the trick.

The soup was declared delicious by my long time husband and veteran recipe taster, John. Over the years, John has taste tasted his way through all (over 20) of my cookbooks. Bless his heart. He has a good appetite and I trust his palate.

I served the soup with toasted Comte cheese sandwiches on multi-grain bread and a fresh spinach salad. (John doesn't care for spinach, so he got some left over farmer's market organic broccolini-- the best I've ever tasted-- drizzled with good California olive oil and a squirt of Meyer lemon from a neighbor's tree.)

It was a great rainy night meal: Hot soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. A 21st century riff on Mom's tomato soup and toasted cheese (made from American slices, most likely) rainy day special.

Tomato and Pumpkin Soup with Shredded Comte Cheese

To make this a truly fresh soup (but, not as fast) roast butternut squash ahead, scrap it from the skins and mash with a fork. You will need about 1 3/4 cups mashed fresh cooked squash to substitute for the canned pureed pumpkin. To save preparation time, plan in advance and roast the squash a couple of days before you'll need it and refrigerate until ready to use. As a back up 1 box (10 ounces) thawed frozen pureed squash or 1 bag ( about 12 ounces) fresh squash chunks, steamed until tender, can be used in place of the canned pumpkin.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoons ground cumin
2 cups water
1 can (28 ounces) canned plum tomatoes or 2 1/2 pounds ripe juicy tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 can (15 ounces) pureed pumpkin (see headnote for fresh butternut squash and other substitutions)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup coarsely shredded Comte cheese

1. Combine the olive oil, onion and celery in a soup pot and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium to medium low heat, until the onions are golden, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir in the cumin and cook, stirring, about 45 seconds.

2. Add the water, cover, and heat to boiling. Add the tomatoes, pumpkin, tomato paste and salt, to taste. Puree the soup with the immersion blender. If you don't have an immersion blender, carefully transfer the soup, in batches, to a blender or food processor and process until pureed. Return the soup to the pot.

3. Cover and simmer the soup about 20 minutes. Taste and add more salt, if desired. Add a grinding of black pepper and the lemon juice. Ladle into bowls and mound about 1/4 cup of cheese in the center of each serving. Serve at once.

Makes 4 servings

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