Friday, December 02, 2011

Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup with Port and Apple ... and other sexy foods

As a chef I am often drawn into conversations about food. Most typically a request for tips, hints and fixes. But in our post Food Network world, cooking is a topic of conversation which nets a surprisingly diverse cast of gastronomically informed people. And so I've recently encountered a more sophisticated range of conversation. During the weeks before Thanksgiving I shared in an enthusiastic debate over what makes a superior stuffing. My emphatic opinion was that hand cut stale bread was crucial.

Occasionally during these conversations, I'm met with lapses of silence when I've waxed a little too poetic in my descriptions and directions. Actually, I don't think it's about being too poetic, but more accurately it's just me stepping out of the box and using my own language to describe flavor. Personally I don't see the problem, it all makes sense to me.

Maybe it goes back to my lack of formal culinary education, which I've always said has gifted me much more than it has ever held me back. I've discovered more by using an ingredient "inappropriately" to dynamic effect than any class in kitchen chemistry could have informed me with. And of course, NYC is "lousy" with culinary graduates, so I've never lacked for someone to tell me what temperature a creme anglaise is set at, or to show me how to de-vein a lobe of foie gras should I need the skill set.

And so, if we are having a kitchen throw down, or just sharing a meal worth discussing... you might hear me say that "It's good, but it needs a solid bottom note." Translation... It's tasty but it's all ethereal. It needs a flavor to help plant it's feet in the ground. It might be a judicious amount of a strong herb like bay, thyme or rosemary. Or maybe a dash of Worcestershire Sauce if it's a reduction or vinaigrette. Some molasses or switching out brown sugar for white...

A few weeks ago I was interviewing with a "young buck" of a chef who seemed full of desire to impress with his style that he's infused himself with in the 6 top quality restaurants he's worked in in the last 9 years.... When he asked me what kind of food I wanted to cook I said "honest food". And in answer to his quizzical look... "By that I mean, food that represents itself as what it is. A Brussels Sprout should taste like the best Brussels Sprout it can be. Heighten flavor don't change it. Ultimately it's NEVER going to get much better than homemade strawberry jam on a warm buttermilk biscuit with sweet butter. Whether we're cooking lobster, sweetbreads, heirloom tomatoes, white truffles or artisinal mac & cheese. If the flavor's not true and honest, you've missed the mark.

Which brings us to what I call sexy food. I remember developing dishes and hors d'oeuvres back in the day and sending back many an idea requesting my team to help me make it more sexy. This term, like pornography is mostly defined in the eye of the taster I suppose. But also, like the often referenced quote about pornography, I know sexy food when I taste it. Forest Honey with Gorganzola on a Whole Grain Crostini. Grilled Duck Breast with Pomegranate Walnut Chutney on Soft Polenta, Warm Oven Poached Oysters on the Half Shell with Truffle Butter Leeks, Properly Made Spaghetti Carbonara (especially when in Rome), or maybe just sweet butter with Maldon salt on a perfect slice of sourdough baguette. I think a lot of what makes a dish sexy is mouth feel. Something luxurious, typically rich and oh so smooth.

This is why any winter squash soup often fills the bill of a steaming hot dish of sexiness. At the same time, it's undeniable hominess can toss a grandmotherly blanket on it's sex appeal. And so I've found a way to throw some fishnets and high heels on this unctuous bowl. A little accessorizing never hurt any of us.

Serves 8

For the Soup:
3 - 4 pound Kabocha, Buttercup or Butternut squash
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
¼ pound Sliced Bacon – cut into 1 inch pieces (optional)
1 Tablespoon Butter, (2 Tablespoons if eliminating Bacon)
1 ½ cups Onion (chopped)
2 medium Garlic Cloves, chopped (1 generous Tablespoon)
1 teaspoon Fresh Thyme Leaves- chopped
1 teaspoon Spanish Smoked Paprika - sweet
½ teaspoon Ground Cumin
¾ teaspoon Cinnamon
½ teaspoon Ground Ginger
¼ teaspoon Black Pepper – freshly ground
¼ teaspoon Nutmeg – freshly ground
¾ cup Port Wine
1 large apple (Honeycrisp, or other sweet-tart apple), peeled, cored and cut into 1” pieces
5 cups stock - (Chicken, Vegetable or a Combination
1 cup Half & Half

Yield – 2 ½ quarts

For the Garnish:
1 ½ cups Port Wine
1 large Apple – (again a Honeycrisp, Granny Smith or other apple that's not too sweet) cut into matchstick julienne
1 Tablespoon Parsley – chopped

Soup Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with non stick cooking spray.

Cut the squash in half and remove seeds. Paint the cut flesh surface with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place squash cut side down on the aluminum foil and roast until tender when pierced with a knife. 30 – 40 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool, peel or cut away the hard rind, and reserve the cooked flesh of the squash.

In a large soup pot, warm the butter and add the bacon (if using). Sauté over medium heat until bacon begins to release fat. Add onions and garlic, and sauté until onions are translucent. Add thyme, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and nutmeg. Stir and cook until spices are aromatic. Raise heat and add port wine. Simmer to release all the flavor from the bottom of the pan about 1 minute, then add apple, and stock. Lower heat, cover pot and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add reserved squash flesh and continue to simmer until apples are soft. Approximately 15 minutes depending on variety of apple used.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender. For the smoothest result, puree the solids with just a little of the cooking liquid first, adding more liquid as you go. Transfer the puree to a sieve set over a larger bowl. Using the back of a ladle push the soup through the strainer, discarding the solids left in the strainer. Soup may be refrigerated and chilled at this point.

When ready to serve, warm the soup over medium heat. Stir in Half & Half, adjust seasonings (especially salt) and serve very warm. Garnish each bowl with the reduced Port and Apple Salad (See Below)

Garnish Directions:
In a skillet warm the port wine until simmering. Allow to reduce in volume to approximately ¼ cup, this may take 20 minutes or longer. The reduction should be syrupy. Watch closely to avoid burning. Set aside and reserve. I recommend making the reduction ahead of time.

For the apple salad, immediately before serving, julienne the apple and combine with the chopped parsley. After placing soup in the bowl, place a small portion in the center of the dish. Drizzle port reduction into the soup, around the salad and serve immediately.

All recipes, copy and photos Copyright Big Mary's Kitchen 2011

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