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My friend Mary Pat’s September birthday is always a reason for celebration. I often cook her a birthday dinner and find it a happy excuse to make a fallish meal after a long, long summer.  (Is it fall YET? The garden’s dying, but it’s still in the 80’s. We sat out last night on the deck at 8 o’clock with a drink watching the blood moon.)

below: my front walk milkweed grown for the monarch butterflies

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Here’s the menu that included her favorite dessert (after Cherries Jubilee, Baked Alaska, and Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie):

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I like six people for dinner, eight at the most, so that I can truly pay attention to and hear each person. Otherwise, it’s a party–cacophony– and I approach it very differently.  I also like to cook a lot of recipes that only serve eight.

My table isn’t big and it isn’t big on purpose. When I finally had enough money to pick my own dining room furniture,  I bought a small table and six chairs. Later I bought a couple of extra narrow chairs that can slide in when it’s very necessary.  Here’s Rosie and the tiny spare chairs (I have pillows for small people or children), which are usually put to use to keep her from tearing up the window screens:

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If I have time, I put together a very simple seasonal centerpiece of some kind; I never spend much money and certainly don’t spend any time unlike my sister Helen, who spends hours on centerpieces. Enter #thelazydecorator. Otherwise, I’m happy with candles. For this dinner, I bought some mums and trimmed them down into tiny flowers I added to Riedel scotch tasting glasses — added between some autumn votives. My time is spent on the food and you might know I like simple food, too. I just don’t mind spending time cooking. Cleaning, decorating–yes; cooking, no.

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I made the pie and the soup the day before. I set the table as well. Saturday, the day of the dinner, I had to work, so the meal needed to be fairly easy and most things had to be almost ready or done quickly.  I first made a big pot of couscous with onions and raisins and then I cooked two pounds of green beans seasoned with the grated peel of 3 lemons. Meantime, I heated the first course soup and threw the ingredients for the tapenade in the food processor for the starter.

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When guests arrived, we began outside on the deck with the tapenade and a sparkler for toasting and then came indoors to eat the soup (below) with a Sancerre rosé. Dave had the grill heating and cooked two sides of sockeye salmon I had frozen last month (about two pounds), which I served with a French Malbec (Cahors.)  I adore Pinot Noir with salmon, but Mary Pat loves a big French red, so Cahors it was.  I stirred together a nearly instant sauce of sour cream, Dijon-style mustard, chopped dill, a little honey and hot sauce (warmed briefly.) I didn’t photograph the plates as I served them; I just didn’t think of it. (Also, it seems a bit self-absorbed and tacky to be photographing food while it gets cold and folks are sitting wait for it. I hate that stuff.)  We got up and stretched our legs to move into the living room for pie and coffee. Some folks had two pieces of pie. This makes a baking girl feel good.

Sorry about the bad pie photo, but it’s the real one:

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I picked the soup for the blog because I love fall soups. This one is perfect to adapt to whatever’s on your counter or in your fridge (add apples, butternut squash, pears, leeks, fennel?) and if you’d like it heavier, add some cream and warm through just before serving.  If you make a big pot (this is easily doubled) for dinner, you night have enough to take for lunches all week.

VEGAN/VEGETARIAN/GLUTEN-FREE:

While gluten-free (check labels of broth) by nature, most vegetable soups including this one are easily vegetarian or vegan. Use vegetable broth for both a vegetarian or vegan option and skip the sour cream and cheese for the vegan. (See red text in recipe.)  Crispy, spicy croutons (don’t use for GF) or more nuts might be good garnishes for vegan diets.IMG_0056

SQUASH-PARSNIP SOUP WITH choice of garnishes: tarragon sour cream or parmesan and toasted sliced almonds

Serves 6 generously or makes at least 10 first course servings.  For vegan option, omit or sub the items in red.  For vegetarian option, use vegetable broth.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper
  • Pinch crushed red pepper or to taste
  • 1 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon, divided
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 each medium zucchini and yellow (summer) squash, trimmed and sliced
  • 2 Parsnips, peeled, trimmed, and chopped
  • 1 Turnip, small or medium: peeled, trimmed, and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter, optional
  • Hot sauce–a few drops

CHOICE OF GARNISHES:

  • 1/2 cup sour cream, garnish, optional (with some of the tarragon) OR
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, garnish, optional, with
  • 1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds, garnish, optional
  1. In a 6 or 8-quart pot, heat oil over medium heat and sauté the onions, carrots, and celery for about 10 minutes or until softening.  Add garlic, 1/2 teaspoon each salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper, and cook another minute or two, stirring. Toss in the parsley and half of the tarragon (reserving remaining for garnish or another use) and stir again to heat through.  Add wine, stir well, and let cook down for 3 or 4 minutes.

2. Pour in water and broth; raise heat and bring to a boil.   Add squash, parsnips, and turnips along with another 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt; lower heat to simmer and cook until vegetables are all very tender–about 15 minutes.

3. Purée in pot using immersion blender or carefully, in batches, in food processor or blender with towel held firmly in place on top. Return to pot if using food processor or blender.  Add butter and hot sauce, if using. Still until melted.  Taste and adjust seasonings.

4. Serve hot with your choice of garnishes:  either a small spoonful of sour cream and a pinch of the reserved tarragon leaves or a good grating of Parmesan cheese with a few toasted, sliced almonds.

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Make fall soup,

Alyce