By SARA MOULTON, Associated Press
As we head into the fall, our local markets are beginning to feature winter squash. Each variety has its charms, but one of the standouts is butternut squash. Like its brethren, it becomes creamy when cooked and pureed, with no need for cream or thickener. Flavor-wise, though, it wins.
Most butternut squash recipes tell you, first, to peel and cut up the squash, and then to steam or boil it. I’ve figured out a couple of different ways to get the job done. The result is a soup that’s safer to prepare and much tastier when you finally dip your spoon into it.
As anyone who’s ever tried to cube a winter squash knows all too well, these guys can be perilously hard to handle. True, the supermarket sells them already peeled and cubed, but they’re pricier than whole squash and likely not as fresh.
For Butternut Squash and Leek Soup with Gruyere Pesto Toasts, we halve and roast the whole squash without peeling or seeding it first. Typically, halving the squash requires slicing it through from stem to stern. Instead, I suggest laying the squash on the counter, sticking the tip of a chef’s knife all the way through the middle of the squash, then slicing from the mid-point to one of its ends. Rotate the squash 180 degrees horizontally, insert the knife tip back into the middle of the veggie and slice away in the direction of the uncut end. Done.
Now the halves are ready to be baked, cut-side-down, on a rimmed sheet pan. Baking squash concentrates its flavor and brings out the natural sugars — unlike boiling or steaming it, which makes it watery. And don’t bother to scrape out the seeds beforehand; it’s easier after the squash has been cooked.
You can prep and cook the rest of the ingredients while the squash is baking and then cooling. These include leeks, Canadian bacon (aka smoked pork loin) and gruyere pesto toasts — all of which contribute to what is a very substantial dish in the end. Round it out with a salad on the side, and this soup becomes a plausible entree. Vegetarians are welcome to substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock and leave out the bacon.
Butternut Squash and Leek Soup with Gruyere Pesto Toasts
Start to finish: 2 hours 5 minutes (50 active)
Servings: 4 as an entree, 6 as a first course
For the soup:
4 pounds butternut squash
Oil for oiling the sheet pan
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
6 ounces sliced Canadian bacon, medium chopped
3 cups thinly sliced white part of leek (about 3 large leeks)
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and black pepper
For the toasts:
Twelve 1/2-inch thick slices French baguette cut on the bias
3/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves, finely shredded
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, coarsely chopped
2 ounces coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (about 3/4 cup)
1/2 ounce finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1/4 cup grated on a microplane)
Make the soup:
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Working carefully, halve the squash lengthwise and arrange it cut-side down on a lightly oiled parchment-lined rimmed sheet pan. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven, until very tender, 60 to 75 minutes.
While the squash is baking, in a large saucepan or a Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat, add the bacon, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until it is golden brown at the edges, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the bacon with a slotted spoon to a bowl, leaving as much of the fat as possible in the pan. Add the remaining tablespoon butter and the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are very tender and starting to color, about 6 to 8 minutes. If the squash is not ready, take the pan off the heat and set it aside.
When the squash is tender, remove it from the oven, turn it over and let stand until cool enough to handle. Discard the seeds and scoop out the flesh. Combine half the squash with 1/2 cup water in a food processor and puree until very smooth. Add to the saucepan with the leeks and bacon. Repeat the procedure with the remaining squash and another 1/2 cup water and add to the saucepan, along with the chicken broth. Bring the liquid to a simmer. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and additional water if necessary to thin the soup to the desired consistency.
Make the toasts:
Arrange the French baguette slices on a sheet pan and when the squash has come out of the oven, bake the slices on the middle shelf until they are slightly golden, turning them, 2 to 3 minutes a side.
In a bowl combine all the remaining ingredients. Right before serving the soup, divide the mixture among the toasts and bake them until the cheese is melted and bubbling, about 5 minutes.
To serve: Ladle the soup into soup bowls and top each portion with some of the hot toasts.
Nutrition information per appetizer serving: 256 calories; 65 calories from fat; 7 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 516 mg sodium; 43g carbohydrates; 7 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 10 g protein.
Nutrition information per individual serving: 139 calories; 36 calories from fat; 4 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 9 mg cholesterol; 277 mg sodium; 19 g carbohydrates; 1 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 7 g protein.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Moulton is host of public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.” She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including “Cooking Live.” Her latest cookbook is “HomeCooking 101.”