As I type this, Hurricane Sandy is pinwheeling its way across the East Coast. All day long I’ve been haunting Facebook and fretting. I have friends and family scattered up and down the Eastern seaboard, and they’ve all spent the past several hours hunkered in their houses, waiting for the storm to come bellowing in. I’ve seen periodic updates of torrential waters in the streets, winds pushing over upright bodies, power going out in home after home after home. I’m sure the news reports are massaged for maximum eye-widening effect, but still. I’m knocking wood for everyone’s safety.
I’m also noticing something. As my friends spent the day settling in, an awful lot of them cooked. My Facebook feed was peppered with photographs of bubbling pots, a cheery reminder that people still had electricity and fuel. A theme emerged: soup and stew. I saw potatoes and mushrooms and vegetable pot pie and squash. I guess when a hurricane is throwing up walls of water just offshore, it makes sense to arm yourself with a bowl of something steamy and life-giving.
So in solidarity with my housebound loved ones, tonight I’m staying in and making good old-fashioned butternut squash soup. I came up with this recipe as a teenager, and it’s one of the few I make the same way every time: with with sauteed leeks, a parsnip, a sweet potato, and a Granny Smith apple. The first time I made this, I impulsively splashed in the dregs from a bottle of Cognac, and it ended up being exactly what the soup needed: a boozy zing to cut the rich sweetness of the squash. I’ve tried it since with plain old brandy, which is just as good as Cognac (and a whole lot cheaper), but my poison of choice these days is bourbon, which gives a shiver of smokiness that I love. The soup is just fine without the liquor, but on a day like today, I’d say it’s needed.
This is the kind of soup I crave when I’ve had a bad day: silky and soft, perfect for sipping from a mug whenever the weather is foul–as it most certainly is now for my East Coaster friends. Here’s hoping the storm spends itself soon, and life can clamber quickly back up to normal for all of you.
Classic Butternut Squash Soup (serves 4-6)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 large or 2 small leeks, white and light green parts only, washed and thickly sliced
1 medium carrot or parsnip, trimmed and chopped
1 medium white sweet potato (about 1/2 lb), peeled and chopped
1 medium tart apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon OR 1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 lb seeded, peeled, and cubed butternut squash (about 1 medium squash)
4 cups (1 quart) vegetable broth or water
A splash of brandy or bourbon (optional, but highly recommended)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a large stockpot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add leeks and a pinch of salt and sweat for 6-8 minutes, or until translucent. Add carrot or parsnip, sweet potato, and apple, and cook, stirring frequently for another 8-10 minutes, or until the apple has softened and the vegetables are starting to brown. Add thyme sprigs, ground ginger, and ground cinnamon (if using). Cook, stirring frequently, for another minute or so, or until fragrant. Add cinnamon stick (if using), bay leaf, and broth or water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30-35 minutes, or until the squash and sweet potato are completely tender.
Remove the thyme stems, bay leaf, and cinnamon stick (if using). Puree the soup using an immersion blender, or transfer to a bar blender and puree in batches. Stir in brandy or bourbon (if using). Season with salt and pepper to taste, then ladle into bowls and serve immediately. Leftovers will keep in the fridge, tightly covered, for up to a week, and in the freezer for 3-4 months.