by Chef Betharoni Bird
Throughout my years of memory, the homestead has always been a reliable place to find meals. While scrounging the fridge and pantry might be the order of the day on Sunday afternoon – when ice cream and popcorn are considered acceptable meal choices – during the week sandwich fixings are on hand, or leftover dinners are available, or fresh food is being prepared.
This past college semester, however, the steady supply of food has seemed more limited on my quick mid-week visits home, or my longer weekend stays. With only one child out of seven still living on the homestead, it’s understandable that the refrigerator stays less fully stocked; but it can still come as a sudden shock to my college student meal planning.
This past week, I was picking up some extra work, chauffeuring the Chinese tutor from my newest city of residence back to the homestead, and planned on getting breakfast and lunch out of the deal. But inspection of the food supplies revealed sparsely occupied shelves and I was forced to resort to kitchen sink soup, whereby most of the small, obscure containers in the refrigerator are dumped into a pot and turned into a meal. The leftover pumpkin puree and sliced ham turned into a very pleasant pumpkin soup, once mixed with some butter, chicken bullion, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and brown sugar. The incident had the side-effect of convincing the Daily Improvisationer that she did indeed enjoy pumpkin soup – a mixture that had previously sounded too far-fetched.
Since our pumpkin harvest was very bountiful this year, when I considered what to make and style for a guest blog, pumpkins came to mind quite quickly. (Things you trip over while walking in the door have a tendency to stick in your memory) With my pastry cook’s preferences strongly showing, I considered Pumpkin Pave’ from one of my textbooks, Pumpkin Squares from an old Winnie the Pooh cookbook, an heirloom Pumpkin Roll recipe, and several different Pumpkin muffin/bread recipes. To balance the sweetness of my mental list, I tacked soup on the end of the choices to present to the consumers, hoping it would be ignored since I had just made it four days ago.
But when I queried the available consumers of food, the vote for soup was unanimous. The vote, together with the fact that I had made cookies the day before and the Youngest Sibling had made cheesecake pushed the cooking direction to savory and I began gathering ingredients.
Since I had used up all of the already cooked pumpkin puree in my mid-week soup, I began by chopping a new pumpkin in half, cleaning out the seeds and roasting it off. Despite the fun I have touching my food, I prefer using the edge of a soup spoon to clean out the seeds, since it does a much cleaner and quicker job of cutting through the pulpy center. I placed the pumpkin halves skin side up in a 9×13 pan with half-an-inch of water in the bottom and set the whole arrangement in a 350 degree oven for an hour.
Once the pumpkin was fork tender, I pulled it out of the oven and the water and began separating the pumpkin from the skin – a very easy task once it had cooled enough that I wasn’t singeing my fingers on contact. Chunks of pumpkin went into the food-processor and were pulsed into a smooth puree.
The Daily Improvisationer had suggested that I make a store run, since the ham that had made the previous soup successful had all been eaten, but in the end we agreed that you shouldn’t shop for soup. Soup should just be allowed to happen. Departing from one ingredient in the previous soup was making me feel adventurous, so I switched the chicken bullion out for beef, and set the mixture on the stove to simmer while I worked out the rest of the ingredient list. The pumpkin puree to beef stock was probably a 1:1 ratio, although I didn’t measure either the water or the puree – just whisked them together until I was happy with the thickness. Then, because the thought of bacon was too much to resist, I chopped up six slices and began frying them up in a cast iron skillet. Once the bacon was getting crispy around the edges, I mixed in a few handfuls of fresh baby spinach and cooked it down to wiltedness. The spinach was making the soup seem too healthy, so I poured in a few dribbles of cream and allowed them to boil off again until the mixture was thick again.
Here the evolution of the soup ran into its first snag. I wanted to add all of the nice crispy bits from the bottom of the bacon pan into the soup, and since I was using beef base and dark flavors, I wanted to use a red wine to deglaze the pan. With two or three varieties of pink and white wine on the counter, I grabbed a bottle of unopened red and pulled the corkscrew out of the drawer. Unfortunately for my plans, the corkscrew at the homestead recently snapped into two pieces, leaving a screw that could be inserted into the cork without much trouble, but couldn’t easily be pulled out again. After wrapping the bottle in a towel and trying a few different methods of leverage – including holding the bottle down while the Youngest Sibling pulled up on the screw. When the entire affair began to feel hazardous and visions of shattered glass and puddled wine began to flash through my head, I appealed to the Amazing Engineer who generously demonstrated the proper way to lever a broken corkscrew.
While these delicate engineering operations were being conducted, I spooned the bacon spinach mix into the larger pot of beefed up pumpkin. When the cork was successfully out, the availability of wine allowed me to pour a splash onto the hot cast iron and observe as it bubbled from purple to pink, down to a dark brown. This flavor concentrate was also added to the soup pot and the first tasting was held.
While the Youngest Sibling continues to stubbornly insist that she did not say she disliked the flavor, she does admit to saying she found this new iteration of soup less enjoyable than the mid-week version. A scramble through the spice cupboards later, and the insertion of more salt, some tomato flakes, onion powder, and thyme made a better overall flavor, but the soup still felt a bit watery, so I stirred in more puree and a touch of butter and brown sugar, along with a splash of Worcestershire sauce. Finally, a happy taster meant that the soup was ready for bowling and serving.
The Daily Improvisationer and the Amazing Engineer expressed approval of the flavors as well, and another version of pumpkin soup was successfully salvaged from the sparse provisions available at the homestead.