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Shifting Into Soup Mode
By Marguerite Thomas
Dec 17, 2013
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Remember the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode when George says, “Shh, I gotta focus.  I’m shifting into soup mode”?  That’s what usually happens to me this time of year as I go into a frenzy of dreaming up new and ever more wonderful kinds of soup to make. 

One thing I’ve learned from this annual culinary obsession is that sometimes the tastiest soups may have modest beginnings, but with a little tinkering here, a dash of inspiration there, the basic recipe can evolve into something well beyond the mere sum of its parts.  Take, for example, the soup I made recently, which started out with two fundamental ingredients: butternut squash and coconut milk.  What I was aiming for was something I might recreate as a first course for the upcoming Christmas dinner.  I wanted it to be a rich soup, with generous, stimulating flavors that would lend themselves to tasty, and perhaps unusual, wines. 

I started off by simmering together oven-roasted squash and onions in chicken stock and coconut milk.  At this point it already tasted pretty good, though somewhat blah.  How might I enliven it, I asked myself?  I considered making a garlicky aioli, which, in my opinion usually makes everything taste better, but in this case it just seemed culturally wrong to enhance the soup’s soupçon of tropical flavoring with such a vehemently Mediterranean zeitgeist.  Better to boost it out of its doldrums with elements more traditionally aligned with the sultry sensation of the tropics: lime, for example, plus lashings of cayenne.  Just before serving I added a shower of Parmesan croutons for textural diversity. 

When the finished soup was dished up I sampled a handful of wines, plus one apple cider, with it.  Surprisingly, my top two favorite beverages were the cider and a big, rich and ripe California Chardonnay.  The cider, which is made in Tasmania, delivers an inconsequential 4.8% alcohol.  It has pleasing apple and pear flavors that danced with the sweetness of the soup, while a measure of acidity and that fleet spark of alcohol kept the fruitiness in balance.  Bright and lively as well as very delicately fizzy, the cider contrasted with the soup like a cool breeze on a summer afternoon.  [BILLIE’S APPLE CIDER, imported from Tasmania, Australia, by Vineyard Brands, $5.50 for a 330ml/11.2 Fl. Oz. bottle].

The wine was an altogether different story.  Rich, velvety, and as complex as the midnight sky, it is densely textured rather than crisp, with subtle but pervasive notes of fruit softened and gorgeously enhanced by a refined oak presence.  Particularly pleasing is the way the wine seems to hug each mouthful of soup in a heartfelt embrace.  [FAR NIENTE CHARDONNAY, 2012, Napa Valley, California, $63].

Although cider and wine are at completely different wavelengths on the drinks spectrum, each of these refreshing beverages suited the soup beautifully.  This was a fun and tasty experiment, but I have to confess that when the day arrives, I may well end up serving Champagne with the soup in celebration of Christmas.  It’s hard for me to resist the temptation of bubbles for holiday feasting.  Besides, Champagne is festive.  Everyone loves Champagne.  Champagne is delicious with everything! Wait, what--you don’t agree? Well, let’s discuss it later--right now I’m shifting into soup mode.  So shhh, I gotta focus.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH LIME COULIS

For the Soup:
1 butternut squash peeled and cut in cubes (about 2-3 cups)
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup coconut milk

Preheat oven to 350°. 
Toss the squash with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and spread on a sided baking sheet.  Season with salt and pepper and roast in a 375° oven, stirring once or twice, for about 15 minutes.  Toss the onion with reaming olive oil and stir it into the squash.  Continue roasting, stirring occasionally, until the squash is very tender and golden brown.  Transfer the mixture to a large pot, add a cup of stock, and puree it with an immersion blender (or transfer the squash to a regular blender or food processor and puree the mixture, adding a little stock as needed).  Add the remaining stock and coconut milk and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until thoroughly warmed.  Dish up in individual bowl and drizzle coulis over the surface of the soup.

For the Coulis:
Grated peel of one lime
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cayenne (or more, to taste)

Combine all ingredients.