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on Leap Day, hope springs

It’s just so confusing! In October we had a foot of snow and leaves still on the trees. That was just about it for the snow this year. January and February saw many really mild days that have coaxed out the daffodils and crocuses. Today, Leap Day, the forecast calls for snow, sleet, freezing rain — generally disgusting weather. Yes, I know that it is winter after all and it is New England as well. But what’s a person to believe in when the weather is such a tease? The answer is simple: my garden.

Christmas future

tomatoes (Christmas Future) on right

At the beginning of February, I planted a few tomato seeds that my neighbor gave me. After a month of sprouting and growing in a  seed-starter unit, they were ready to graduate to the two-inch square peat pots that you see here. (I’ve staged them with some “store-bought” tomatoes just to give them encouragement.) They are a heavy-maintenance project. Must keep in warm, sunny window; must keep moist, but not too wet; must re-pot repeatedly; must gradually introduce to the outdoors and real sunlight before planting; must be careful not to plant too early. The list could go on, and each year I claim that I won’t grow tomatoes from seeds again.

The return on investment — assuming that my time is worthless, which as a freelancer is sometimes true — it is still questionable whether you do better just buying plants in the early summer. Certainly at most garden stores and even at many big box stores you will find large and hearty vegetable plants for a couple bucks a piece. Being an organic gardener, I avoid those venues and browse my local farmers’ markets in the spring. Even the organic varieties aren’t that expensive compared with the time and effort it takes to nurture plants from seeds.

“so why?” you ask

The immediate answer that comes to mind is the perennial one that parents use with their children when they can’t think of an easy reply, “because.” Yes, because I need to see the possibilities. I need to know that there will be a time when real food will come from the soil in my backyard, and that food will taste so good. It is a leap of faith to put the tiny seed in some moist soil and believe that with enough love and nurturing, you’ll have a tomato to savor in seven months. Yikes, when you put it that way, it’s almost as long as making a baby! (Every parent knows it takes a leap of faith to raise a child, too.)

Christmas past

Christmas past: the last butternut squash from my 2011 garden

Isn’t she pretty? Wish that you could feel her. She’s just as firm as when I took her from the dying October garden. And I know that her flesh will be bright orange, sweet, and nutty. Oh, that I would age so well!

The winter squash varieties (butternut, acorn, Hubbard, pumpkin just to name a few) take a long time to mature and are best picked after their vines die back. But while you have to wait a bit for their tasty flesh, they are incredible keepers. Just store them in your cool basement and they’ll keep until spring. We’ve enjoy sautéed squash, squash soup, and my newest favorite thanks to the New York Times, kale pesto with roasted butternut squash. The latter is an incredible season stretcher since kale will survive easily through several frosts.

enjoy the bonus

Leap day is a bonus! Hope that you are enjoying what feels like an extra twenty-four hours.

Sweet and Savory Winter Squash Soup

I had some friends over for a working lunch yesterday — a committee “launch and lunch” as I called it. My meal plan: soup and salad, crusty bread, lemonade, and finger desserts. Because the committee is composed of very eager and helpful folk, all I needed to do was make some soup and open the door.

For my soup, I wanted something not too heavy, but enough to sustain us until the next meal; something tasty, yet easy; something not too expensive, but still pleasing to the senses. That’s when squash soup bounds into my mind wearing a big blue “S” on its chest, a cape flapping in the breeze, shouting, “Ta dah! Super Soup is here to save the day!” Honestly, squash soup is one of the best kept culinary secrets.

It’s easy and inexpensive to make, and — thanks to my bounteous cache of frozen squash pulp in the freezer — it’s even easier! Home preservers, I’ll talk about canning and freezing winter squash and pumpkins in another, more timely post.  For today, here’s one of my favorite recipes, an amalgam of recipes combined with trial and error.

Sweet & Savory Winter Squash Soup

You can make this soup with almost any variety of winter squash or eating pumpkin that has dense, yellow or orange flesh. The orange color will be more or less intense depending upon the variety. My favorites are butternut and Tahitian.  If you have a stick blender, you can chop your raw vegetables in larger chunks, speeding prep time. If you don’t have a stick blender, get one. It will make life almost perfect!

This recipe is for a double batch. It will easily feed a dozen hungry folks or more as a first course. What I like do however, is make the soup recipe and stop just before the point of adding the dairy. Then I divide it in half and squirrel away half for another day — without the dairy, it will keep well over a week in the refrigerator or will store nicely for a year in the freezer. When you’re ready for the second half, just heat; add the dairy, syrup, and nutmeg, and serve.

Ingredients

  • 1 stick (1/2 C) unsalted butter
  • 4 C of mashed winter squash pulp*
  • 4 large carrots, coarsely cut
  • 2 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only) or 2 medium mild onions, coarsely cut
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. peeled, chopped, fresh ginger root. Be sure that it’s not too woody or fibrous
  • 3 medium bay leaves
  • 2 C Chardonnay or other dry white wine — not top shelf
  • 6 C water
  • 2 C half and half and 1 1/2 C whole milk (or whatever level of dairy fat you want to use. I’ve made this with 2% milk. I’ve made with goat’s milk.)
  • 1/3 to 1/2 C pure maple syrup (to taste)
  • 1/2 teas. ground nutmeg (or less if freshly grated)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt butter over med. heat in a large pot, until it’s fragrant, but not browned. Add carrots and leeks/onions. Cook, stirring often, until leeks/onions are soft and transparent, about 5 min. Add garlic, ginger, and bay leaves, cooking only 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine, turn heat to high, and bring to full boil. Cook until the wine is mostly evaporated (veggies should still be in a little liquid). Add 6 C water and mashed squash, return to full boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cover. Cook slowly until carrots are very tender — 45 to 60 minutes.

Using a stick blender, puree the soup in the pot. (Or puree in batches using a food processor, or mash by hand with potato masher, being careful of hot liquid.) Soup should be smooth and free of lumps.

If desired, wait to serve the next day. Soup flavor develops overnight. If desired, store part for serving at a later date either in refrigerator or freezer.

When ready to serve, heat to almost boiling, add half and half and milk, 1/3 C maple syrup, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Taste. If desired, add a bit more maple syrup and correct the seasoning. Heat to serving temperature, being careful not to boil. Soup should be thick and rich. If too thick, add a bit more milk.

Garnish with a few streaks of extra virgin olive oil, a slight dusting of nutmeg, or croutons. Serve with crusty bread.

*Winter squash pulp

Cut winter squash in half, scoop out seeds. Place cut side down in shallow baking dish. Add about 1/4 inch of water. Cover snugly (but not air tight). Bake in 325 degree oven until squash is tender, about 60 minutes. Let cool, scoop out squash flesh to use in soup. If you wish to use the flesh in muffins or pie, drain in cheesecloth or colander to remove excess liquid. Pulp should be moist, but not watery or soggy. Use the drained liquid in soups and stocks — don’t send the vitamins down the drain! Compost the skins.

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