Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kabocha Squash Soup/Carrot-Ginger Soup

I bought myself an early Xmas present this year, that being an immersion (hand) blender from Costco. Why would I commit such an act a mere week or two before the holiday? One word - soup. Cold weather is here, our last 2 farmboxes of the season are laden with squash and carrots, and I'll go batty if I have to consume another version of stuffed gourd in 2011. Soup is the solution to all of these issues since 1) it's hearty, 2) it can include mass quantities of vegetables, 3) it's usually tasty and generally healthy depending on the prep, and 4) it's pretty easy to make provided you have the correct tools on hand (hence the new appliance). With an immersion blender in the Commissary, we no longer have to pour hot, chunky liquids into a stand blender or food processor in order to puree them into a smooth soup (thereby putting the cook at risk for unsightly burns, or, worse, spillage onto the nice counters and wood cabinets while critical eyes watch) - now we just slurry everything out right in the pot.

Trusty tool in hand, I set off to make the first soup, this one featuring kabocha squash (fairly similar in look and flavor to the red kuri from my last posting), pancetta, and fried sage leaves (recipe courtesy of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine via Epicurious). Most portions of the process were very straightforward (e.g., roasting the squash in the oven and scooping out the pulp), with the exception of the sage leaves, which had to be flash-fried in a large saucepan containing a little canola oil heated to 365F. Having never attempted to fry herbs before, I was a little taken aback by the mist of hot oil that erupted as I dropped the sage leaves into the pot; fortunately, the cauldron settled down quickly enough for me to fish them out in a few seconds without requiring a skin graft. It turns out that the fried sage and the crumbled fried pancetta (cooked separately) are key ingredients, adding rich savory notes when sprinkled atop the finished broth (which contains squash, onion, garlic, and chicken stock). Served up with a crusty bread and a light protein (like roasted chicken), this soup makes a fine meal to satisfy even the pickiest eaters (except my kids).

Soup #2 is a carrot base with "ginger essence" (whatever that means), the brainchild of one Chef Carl Schroeder, formerly of Restaurant Arterra in the San Diego Marriott (and who now owns his own well-regarded place, Market, in that same city). This recipe stretched my cooking chops a little more than the first, requiring me to do a little legwork on how to properly use a stalk of lemongrass (discard all but the bottom 6 to 8 inches and remove the tough outer layer before chopping). Another hurdle came when trying to complete the finished soup - once pureed with the hand blender, I was instructed to filter the cooked liquid through a fine-mesh sieve, retaining only the juice to be served tableside; however, there was so little juice leftover and so much pulp left behind in the sieve that I opted to incorporate some of the pulp into the final product (maybe half of it?) to add volume. This ended up not being a bad idea, as the pulp added a nice texture and a little heft to the carrot and ginger liquid. Light sour cream and black pepper were added to the bowls to further deepen the flavor profile (I decided to forgo the chopped chives). Although a little odd-looking (it wasn't orange like you might expect, but more burgundy since I used a couple of purple carrots in the mix), this soup tasted good and (like the first one) made a great side dish at dinner.

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