Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

A week after Thanksgiving, I was growing weary of looking at the winter squashes that had been staring at me from the windowsill for over a month. I initially put them there to inspire me to make a clever Thanksgiving centerpiece, but instead, they became a constant reminder that I had never gotten around to decorating with them. Or cooking them. I was over squash.

The question was, do I cook them, freeze them, or put them in the compost where my chickens could happily devour them over the winter? That’s one of the nice things about having chickens, they are the ultimate assuagers of guilt. If you don’t get around to eating food, the chickens are ready to step in — and they give you eggs for the trouble.

In the end, I roasted a variety of squashes, scooped out the flesh, and froze it.

Recently, I had a marvelous lunch with a few girlfriends. Each of them ordered butternut squash soup. I took a taste. It was delicious. I decided I would make butternut squash soup with the frozen squash. I had a rich homemade Chicken Stock from Rotisserie Chicken Bones in the freezer to use for the broth.

Yield: 12 cups of a hearty soup. You could have more volume by thinning the soup with extra chicken broth.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, roughly diced (3 cups or 1 pound)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed, and chopped
4 pounds (7 cups) roasted winter squash (see directions below)
2 quarts (8 cups) no salt added chicken broth.
Salt and pepper to taste

Mise en Place

To Roast Squash:
To make this soup, you will need to roast the winter squash first. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and fibrous pulp. I used acorn, butternut and Seminole pumpkin squashes. As described in this post, microwave the butternut squash to make it easier to slice.
 

Use a silicone basting brush to swab the squash halves with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, garlic pepper, and“Trader Joe’s Everything But The Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend.

Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 425º oven. Cook for one hour.

Let cool for another hour and remove the skin and any remaining stringy pulp. I packed and froze the cooked squash.
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To Make Soup:
I had never made squash soup before but started by doing what I always did when making soup, I sautéed onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat until they became soft and translucent – about 15 minutes.

Next, I added the mushy roasted veggies. If you desire a hearty soup, as I did, there is no need to puree the squash first. If you are looking for a daintier soup, or one with a more uniform consistency, purée the squash.

Stir in the broth and bring the soup to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste before serving. I only needed to add one teaspoon of salt and no pepper because the roasted vegetables I used had already been well-seasoned.

Serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsley. You could add curry or ginger powder if you want to add more flavor, but I love the robust taste of roasted veggies.

My new seasonal windowsill.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Stocking Stuffers: Tools for the Cooking Life

As my kids grew up and got their own apartments, I started giving them kitchen tools that were featured on my blog as stocking stuffers. These were specialized tools above and beyond the typical measuring spoons and cups.

My list of specialized cooking tools includes:

Instant Read Digital Thermometer:  This thermometer works quickly and accurately. The digital screen can tilt back and forth. Last spring, when I was big into making yogurt, I gave each of my sons one for Easter. The “instant read” thermometer should only be used to periodically check the temperature of roasting meat as it cannot be left in the oven during the cooking process.

From: DIY Yogurt and Yogurt Cheese (aka Labneh)

 

The Microplane Fine Grater: I use this tool to zest citrus or to finely grate cheese, ginger, and nutmeg.

From: Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies (best cookies on the blog)

From: Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower

 

Citrus Squeezer: I use this tool to extract juice from lemons/limes without getting seeds or pulp into the juice. I also use it to squeeze the juice directly over fish, vegetables or pasta dishes just before serving.

From: Brooks’s Pork Tenderloin with the Most Amazing Marinade

From: Fettuccini with Rapini (aka Broccoli Rabe) and Garlic

 

Kitchen Scale with a “Zero-Out” Feature: This scale weighs food up to eleven pounds. Since I use eggs from my backyard chickens, I often weigh them rather than go by the number of eggs called for in a recipe. A large commercial egg weighs about two ounces. My chickens lay eggs that are less uniform ranging from one and a half to three ounces. Once I had a four-ounce egg (OUCH!). I use the scale to weigh vegetables, nuts, fruit, flour, and meat as I develop recipes. The scale costs about $50 so it may fall into the category of “an under the tree” gift instead of a stocking stuffer. I’ve had my scale for five years, and it is still using the original batteries.

From: 50 Ways to Make a Frittata

From: Fruit and Nut Bread

From: Lisa’s Award Winning Buffalo Chicken Chili

 

A French Wire Whisk (with a barreled handle)
I like my 10-inch whisk with the narrow head because it gets into the recesses of a saucepan when making gravy and also along the sloping sides of a bowl when mixing dry ingredients. The barrel handle stays cool to touch when stirring hot foods. I tend to use my Kitchen Aid when whipping cream or egg whites, where lots of air incorporation is needed.
 
From: Foolproof Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Gravy

 

Fat Separator (with a food particle filter): Great for separating fat from meat juice when making gravy or chili. I also use my 4-cup separator as a strainer when I make labneh (a spreadable yogurt cheese).

From: My Favorite Silver Palate Chili

From: DIY Yogurt and Yogurt Cheese (aka Labneh)

 

Basting and Pastry Silicone Brush: This gets a ton of use when I coat summer veggies or fish with olive oil before roasting. I also use it to lightly frost cookies before adding sprinkles. It goes in the dishwasher for easy cleanup.
 
From: Baked Ziti with Eggplant

From: Easy Roasted Salmon with Olive Oil and Garlic Pepper

 

Meat Tenderizer Mallet: I’m big on flattening chicken breasts to help them cook more evenly. I also smash garlic or nuts with the mallet rather than dirty the food processor for just one ingredient.

From: Lemony Grilled Chicken Breasts

From: Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower

From: Mom’s Monkey Bread, circa 1970

 

Pie Crust Shield: I make a lot of pies, and I want the bottom crust to be fully baked without burning the top. Covering the edge of the crust while it bakes shields it from browning as the bottom crust continues to cook. Another thing I do to encourage the bottom crust to cook is to bake the pie on a pre-heated pizza stone.

From: Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie

 

Thaw Detector for the Freezer: My husband adopted this simple device for use in our freezer  We were never sure if a power outage, while we were out of town, lasted long enough to melt the contents of the freezer. Now we know if the penny is on the bottom, the food is spoiled.

From: How to Make a Thaw Detector for the Freezer

And then there are these tools that sit on my windowsill every December:

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Foolproof Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Gravy

I love nothing more than to sit around the dinner table with friends and family of all generations and enjoy a meal filled with storytelling, good food, and laughs. I particularly love Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve because of the traditions and feelings of anticipation and gratitude that go with them.

To get to the actual serving of the Thanksgiving dinner, I have to pass through a few cooking hurdles. For instance, I suffer from indecision everytime I cut into the turkey thigh to test for doneness.  Are the juices truly running clear, or are they still ever so slightly pink?

And then there is the gravy. So much mystery there.

If it’s not lumps, it’s blandness. Making a velvety smooth, full-bodied gravy has eluded me for years. It is the reason why, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the crazy hour before dinner, I nonchalantly ask, “Who wants to make the gravy?” as if it were an afterthought. Thankfully, there is always someone who volunteers, often, my husband Kelly and his mother, Catherine.

Earlier in the week, I was talking food with my good friend Karen Rolen, a joyful, spunky woman originally from Montgomery, Alabama. I asked her if she knew how to make gravy. She confidently and enthusiastically said, “Yes, I’ve been making it my whole life; where I come from, gravy is considered a BEVERAGE!”  Her written instructions arrived the next morning.

“Make a light brown roux* with equal parts butter and all-purpose flour. I probably use ¼ to ½ stick of butter.  Add hot turkey drippings and fonds** if you have them. Have two cups or so of heated chicken broth ready, and even if it’s good and homemade, have “Knorrs” or “Better Than Bullion” chicken base available for salt and seasoning later. Slowly, stir broth into the cooked roux and drippings mixture and boil on medium-high until you get the consistency you want. Season to taste with lots of ground black pepper and the chicken bullion. It’s usually good enough to drink!”

*To learn what a roux is, check out Bruce’s Turkey and Sausage Gumbo and learn why you might also want to consider saving the turkey carcass and trimmings this year.

**Fond is French for “base” and means the bits and pieces of browned meat or vegetables left in a pan after roasting or frying.

Make-Ahead Gravy

My goal was to tweak Karen’s instructions to create a make-ahead, flavorful and dependable gravy you could make a few days or hours before the holiday dinner.

Yield: Makes three cups (this recipe is easily doubled or cut in half)

Ingredients 

½ cup butter (1 stick)
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups (1 quart) heated boxed or homemade chicken broth
½ teaspoon ground pepper
¾ to 1½ squares of Knorr Chicken Bullion (for “seasoning to taste”)

Mise En Place

Instructions

Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat.

Use a whisk to stir in the flour.

Stir continuously over medium heat until the roux starts to change color, usually about three minutes, give or take a few seconds. The picture on the left was taken at 2½ minutes. The one on the right was taken at three.

 

Think of the roux’s darkening as “toasting” or cooking the flour. The roux should be medium brown in color when it is done. This cooking of the flour is what gives gravy its depth of flavor and that desired taste of nuttiness. I promise, if this is your first time making a roux, you are going to feel very accomplished as a cook once you make this gravy.

As soon as the roux changes color, add the warm broth to stop the roux from cooking any longer. Whisk in the chicken broth and simmer for about five minutes until the gravy thickens.

Stay with it, so the flour does not get an opportunity to stick to the bottom of the pan. Also, do not adjust the seasonings until after the gravy has finished cooking because as the liquid evaporates the flavors will concentrate.

“Salt and Pepper to Taste”

I add the pepper first because I think it is easier to adjust. Next, instead of adding salt, Karen and I both use Knorr bullion cubes for flavoring. The amount you will need depends on a few variables such as whether you use unsalted or salted butter and “no salt added” or regular chicken broth.

To successfully “season to taste,” I  cut the large Knorr bullion cubes into quarters. I add one small square at a time, tasting after each addition. Continue to add and taste until you hit that magical moment when the gravy suddenly tastes rich and delicious.

Notice how velvety smooth the gravy is.

Reheat the gravy in a saucepan just before serving. Feel free to add additional strained juices from the roasting pan to the gravy, if desired.

My friend, Renée, whose family likes to fry their turkey, reminds me there are no drippings for gravy-making when frying. This recipe would be a good solution for that situation.

If you wish to make your own chicken stock, consider these two posts to learn how: Chicken Stock from Rotisserie Chicken Bones and Rotisserie Chicken Soup, Revisited. I found little difference between using my homemade broth and the Pacific brand of chicken broth. Both are very rich in flavor.

Hope your Thanksgiving is filled with love and good cheer!

Epilogue

Once I got Karen’s recipe adapted for this post, I took a sample of gravy to my friends whom I was meeting for coffee. They each tasted the gravy and agreed it was indeed yummy and sippable! Thanks, Mary, Susie, Corabel, Jane, and Mary for being tasters.

Thanks to Karen Rolen for teaching me how to make gravy. I’ll think of you every Thanksgiving when I make it.

Check out the recipes under Thanksgiving on the website menu.

Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Pecan Picking in Mississippi (and recipes to go with them)

Years ago, my family and I were traveling in Sicily and came across a grove of nude trees surrounded by layers of stacked bark. We pulled off the road to examine the naked trees and figured out we were in a cork oak forest. Cork trees can be stripped of their bark every nine years to make products like wine corks. In fact, the next time you have an all-natural cork, count the number of lines on it, and you will know how many years the grower waited between bark harvests. I wrote a story about it here. Before seeing this grove, I had never considered where corks came from.

The same is true for pecans. Until recently, I never considered how pecans, or any nuts for that matter, were commercially harvested.

My curiosity was first sparked a few weeks ago when I saw a video on Instagram of my friend, yoga teacher Mary Thorstad, picking pecans off the lawn of her parents’ home in Georgia using a quaint collecting device.

Mary described how much she delighted in the idea of picking edible food off the lawn. She said the pecans were little treasures waiting to be found, like manna from heaven. It is a task she has enjoyed doing since childhood. I remember wondering if all pecans were harvested from the ground, or if this device was just a child’s way of picking up a few fallen pecans like you might do when gathering apples from under a tree.

This past weekend, my husband and I visited friends in Como, Mississippi. Como borders the Mississippi Delta to the west, Oxford to the southeast, and Memphis to the north.

We arrived late in the evening. As we drove up the driveway, my husband commented on the stately old oak and pecan trees that lined the moonlit driveway. Later, he asked our friends, Denise and Sledge Taylor, about the mature trees and whether they picked the pecans. They proceeded to tell us a few delightful stories about townspeople coming by to pick pecans over the years. Sledge said it was not uncommon to come home to find a sack of pecans on their front porch. It meant someone had come by and picked some for themselves and, as a token of appreciation, picked a sack for the tree-owners. Denise told us that once they came home to find homemade pecan pies on their front porch instead of the customary gunny sack. They were thrilled. I thought I’d be mighty pleased with a sack of pecans, but that was when I had the misperception that people harvested pecans by climbing ladders and using specialty pole-pickers to harvest them, a job I was not prepared to do.

Then I learned pecans were harvested off the ground even when grown commercially. Pecans grow in a husk in clusters at the end of branches. As the husk matures, it splits open, and the nut drops out. In commercial orchards, farmers use a mechanical tree-shaker to nudge the tree into dropping their nuts on the ground. After they fall, large-scale sweepers are brought in to collect them.

Sensing how taken I was with seeing pecan trees for the first time, Sledge drove us to a commercial pecan orchard with acres full of mature trees. The trees were planted on a grid. The oldest were planted in the 1890s on a 60 x 60 grid. The younger trees were planted in the 1940s on a 45 x 45 grid. Sledge said they plant them even closer now. We loved that whichever direction we viewed them from, the trees lined up, both in rows and on the diagonal. Truly, a marvel to behold.

Meanwhile, we harvested 8.5 pounds of nuts from Sledge and Denise’s driveway.

We used a sweeper device Sledge kept for harvesting nuts from his yard.

It looks and works a lot like a tennis ball sweeper.

Sledge said not to pick pecans that still had their husks on as the husk would keep the shell moist and the nut inside would likely be rotten.

After we arrived back in Nashville,  I immediately set to picking the pecan meat out of the shells. It took every bit of two hours to pick through our eight pounds of unshelled nuts. I ended up with almost two pounds of tender, tasty pecan meats. Manna from heaven, indeed.

It was tedious work. Granted, the tools I used were not for industrial use. They were more like cocktail party fare from the Fifties.

Today, except for my stained and scratched fingers, I’ve forgotten about the amount of work that went into cleaning out the shells. But man oh man, as I was shelling, I was thinking, I get it, now. I know why Denise was even happier to get the homemade pies!

Thanks to our hosts, Denise and Sledge Taylor who live on a beautiful farm in the “hill country” a place with never-ending vistas of pastures and planted fields. This photo was taken at their cotton gin. That’s a whole nother story!

Tried and True Recipes Calling for Pecans

Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie (served two ways)
 

Pumpkin Bread Pudding (served two ways)
 

Cranberry and Hot Pepper Jelly Brie Bites

Grandma’s Cranberry Chutney

Fruit and Nut Bread

Sorghum, Oats, and Cranberry Granola

Oat, Sorghum, Ginger and Cranberry Cookies

I thought about The Pecan Man, a novel by Casey Dandridge Selleck while writing this post. The story takes place in a small Southern town in Florida. The main character is a spunky, well-respected, and charming woman who tries to do right by a homeless man who picks pecans from lawns in the 1970s. The audiotape has an excellent reader.

Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.

© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.