Being a butternut squash devotee, but far from being an Italian, I had no particular idea of whether or not my silky orange fall favorite was much of a thing in the country of mozzarella, artichokes, popes, cappuccino, pasta, beautiful fish, red wine, gorgeous shoes, shining lemons, and pizza.
above: husband Dave’s margherita pizza
I therefore was so excited seeing its telltale, perky and bulbous shape– though in mostly a smaller profile than in the U.S.– nearly everywhere in Tuscany and Rome, usually at the very tip-top of the vegetable stands. Thanks to those long-ago explorers who carried squash (along with tomatoes, corn, and potatoes) back to Europe! Even on the Greek islands we visited (Rhodes and Crete), there they were looking pretty fall-ish for how warm–sigh and drip–it was. I couldn’t wait to get home and do something new with butternut squash. Something like a new butternut squash soup. If that’s possible!
above: vegetables and fruit outside a small grocery store in Crete. Note butternut squash in boxes top left
above: Alyce’s clubhouse
On my cookbook shelves were several books I thought might be helpful in deciding which direction this soup should go.
I began by quickly rifling through a rather recent acquisition, GOOD AND GARLICKY, THICK AND HEARTY, SOUL-SATISFYING MORE THAN MINNESTRONE ITALIAN SOUP BOOK by Joe Famularo. While this fun volume is new to me via the local thrift shop, it’s not new in the marketplace (1997), but is full of delightful meals. Alas, a simple butternut squash soup isn’t among them. Instead, Joe has Lentil Soup with Squash, Cabbage, and Cauliflower. And while it sounds divine, it didn’t give me a clue.
above: newest edition of THE SILVER SPOON
Next I moved on to pulling out the big guns like THE SILVER SPOON, the quintessential and omniscient Italian cookbook, whose companion volume is THE SILVER SPOON PASTA, just in case you need something to keep you company some moonlit night when you can’t stop dreaming of farfalle or bucatini.
And while THE SILVER SPOON should or could have had what I needed, it didn’t. A small, sweet Cream of Pumpkin was the sole contribution to winter squash soups that I could find. Of course THE SILVER SPOON can’t have everything, but I did wonder why not? I needed ideas. I kept pulling things down and my stack grew larger and larger as I searched with little success. I didn’t want a recipe to cook, but I wanted to know what direction others had gone before me.
For a list of my favorite basic Italian cookbooks, scroll down.
One of my brand-new happy arrivals, though, wasn’t an Italian cookbook at all, but was Melissa Clark’s hottest and newest, COMFORT IN AN INSTANT : 75 COMFORT FOOD RECIPES FOR YOUR PRESSURE COOKER, MULTICOOKER, AND INSTANT POT. Low and behold, there was, there certainly was–mama mia– an Italian butternut squash soup recipe in there. It gave me pause; I read it fast. It wasn’t what I had in mind. I know it’s luscious because Melissa does nothing that isn’t, but first, it’s for the Instant Pot and I kinda wanted old-school stovetop type stuff. Secondly, while the seasonings were gorgeous, they just made me think harder about how I wanted my soup. (I’d try that recipe another day.) I was wondering about it not screaming with sweetness, but humming with a certain measured tone of honeyed happiness. In fact, I thought I’d add tomatoes. Adding tomatoes to winter squash isn’t new and it makes sense (right?) because the last of the tomatoes and the first of the hard squashes often appear in tandem in the garden. I liked the idea, but I knew the bowl would need balance. Maybe a salty and savory addition and…something crunchy. I find soups blossom and bloom with textural components. Pancetta and sage came to mind…and that’s the direction my pot headed.
By the way, if you’re looking for perfect Christmas gifts for those folks with an Instant Pot, pressure cooker, or other multicooker, look no further than Melissa’s new trim volume (160 pages). There are homey recipes sure to please everyone–think favorites like Chicken Cacciatore, Pork Tacos, Spicy Asian Chicken Wings, Spaghetti & Meatballs, and Middle Eastern Red Lentil, Bean + Barley Soup.
WINTER SQUASH TIPS: While I didn’t try it this time, you might: check out canned cooked and pureed butternut squash for a speedy version. I bought my squash peeled and cubed at COSTCO, lazy cook that I am. Buying whole squash? Pierce it all over with a sharp knife, and microwave it a few minutes for easier peeling.
If these ingredients strike a chord with you, or you need something luscious and soupy for Halloween, Thanksgiving, or even just for a weeknight dinner and work lunches, try this:
ITALIAN BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP
For a vegan or vegetarian version, use vegetable broth in place of chicken broth and chopped toasted walnuts for the pancetta. For vegans, replace the butter with another tablespoon of olive oil. Buttercup, pumpkin, or other similar winter squash can be subbed for the butternut squash.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon salted butter
- 1 small red onion, diced
- 1 medium leek, sliced (white and light green parts only)
- 2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
- 6 small fresh sage leaves, minced (plus more for garnish)
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- 15-ounce can diced tomatoes or 5 fresh medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups water, or more as needed
- 1 butternut squash, about two and a half pounds, peeled and diced or 4 cups diced squash
- 3 ounces pancetta diced or sliced into 1/4-inch ribbons, and fried crisply for garnish–can sub bacon, if desired
- 12 small fried sage leaves for garnish
Heat oil and butter in an 8-quart soup pot over medium heat and add the onion and leek. Sauté, stirring, for 5 minutes or until softened. Add whole garlic cloves, minced sage leaves and thyme; cook another minute or two. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper. Stir in diced tomatoes, broth, and water; bring to a boil. Tip in diced squash and lower heat to a simmer. Cook 20-30 minutes or until squash is quite tender, stirring occasionally. Add a bit more water if the vegetables are not bubbling freely. Taste and adjust seasonings. Purée with a handheld blender or carefully in batches in a blender (hold top with towel) or food processor until the soup is at the desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings one last time. Serve hot with garnishes of crispy pancetta and sage leaves.
MAKE THIS SOUP YOURS: Change up the seasonings for a different Butternut Squash Soup.. Like spicy? Add hot sauce or more black pepper; today’s soup isn’t “hot.” Skip the thyme and sage; add 1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder and maybe even ginger. Some folks instead like cinnamon and a bit of nutmeg. Stirring in a can of coconut milk (I like the “lite” variety best) at the end, if you’ve gone the curry or cinnamon route, is a delicious alternative. Diced apples and/or pears are a happy fall alternative to tomatoes. Alternative garnishes? Toasted chopped or whole nuts, freshly fried herby croutons, minced fresh parsley, grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other cheeses, drizzled olive oil.
WINE: While we’ll eat this as a main course with a bit of cheese and bread on the side, in the Italian food world, a simple pureed vegetable soup fits into the primo course (after the antipasto and before the main or secondo– exactly where a little pasta would be if you weren’t serving this good soup). I’d go with the Italian white Vermentino —just for the contrast, but I wouldn’t be against a sparkly Prosecco.
If you liked this, you might also like my
A FEW FAVORITE BOOKS THAT FOCUS ON ITALIAN COOKING
While there are myriad Italian cookbooks, many by American-type celebrity chefs and others that focus on particular regions or specific foods, these are some of my basic, much-loved, and all-around kitchen go-tos. These are in no particular order.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (Combines THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK AND MORE CLASSIC ITALIAN)
The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rosetto Kasper
The Silver Spoon by The Silver Spoon Kitchen
The Silver Spoon Pasta by Editors of the Phaidon Press
Italian Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Hermann Loomis
Trattoria by Patricia Wells
Cucina Simpatica by Johanne Killeen & George Germon
Italian Food by Elizabeth David
Lidia’s Family Table by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
The Tucci Cookbook by Stanley Gucci
Last spring’s neighborhood “girls” are stopping by these days to snack on tiny fall crabapples and other dried garden plants. While a doe would typically still be with these recent bambis, she’s sadly disappeared. I’m afraid she’s the doe I saw at the side of a nearby busy road, hit by a car, a few weeks ago. Luckily they’ve already learned where all the good stuff is and appear healthy and strong.
Thursday, 10/25/18 update: GOOD NEWS!!! Mom showed up today. Wasn’t saying where she’d been and I didn’t ask 😉
The freeze and snow the Springs saw while we were off in the summery Mediterranean wasn’t enough to take out all of the green in the yard, but it’s not far off. Chilly rain this morning, so…
Happy fall cooking,