What a dismal, dispiriting day here in Scotland’s capital city. All I can hear is the constant sloppy smack of raindrops dripping from our oak tree onto our conservatory roof. Other than a paid-for ticket to somewhere equatorial the only thing for it is a big colourful bowl of soup. The brighter the better.
My good friend Niki at unifiedspace specialises in colour, especially as it relates to interiors (she used to design paint colours). Recently, on a dank dreary day like today, she sent me some lovely photos of a halved butternut squash. As I looked at this humble, exceedingly useful vegetable* I realised that its hypnotically vibrant hue was not only very pleasing to my eye but that it was having a psychological effect on me too. I quickly felt more energised and motivated. It perhaps sounds a bit hokey, and the sceptic in me dismissed this effect as coincidence, but it happened again while making this soup. Not quite the effects of caffeine – I don’t think we’ll all be rushing out to get a butternut squash juice Americano any time soon – but I definitely felt a boost. I can’t promise that you will experience a similar benefit, but what I will guarantee is that if you make this soup, its deep saffron colour will make you smile. I think it has banished thoughts of warm foreign climes – for now.
The science bit*: Technically butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) are fruits, filled as they are with seeds, but culinarily they are vegetables. Although we tend to peel and discard the skin, all parts of this magnificent vegetable are edible: the roasted seeds are particularly delicious and a valuable source of zinc, Vitamin E, calcium, iron, protein and fatty acids. The flesh itself is a rich source of beta and alpha carotene (which give them their orange colour), vitamins C and E, potassium and fibre. Like sweet potatoes, butternut squash are a medium glycemic load food, so won’t have a significant effect on blood sugar levels when eaten in moderation; combine with a protein and lower the impact even more.
What else?: Butternut squash makes more than just a creamy, pretty soup. Steamed, raw-grated, roasted or boiled it can easily sweeten and fibre-up a cake or bread, add interest to most stews, pair up with soft cheese, roasted garlic and herbs for a great dip and, until the delicate spring vegetables arrive, lend colour and a sweet note to risottos and grain-based salads. Chop, blanch and freeze any leftover raw butternut squash for later use. It is virtually interchangeable with sweet potato but keeps a bit better.
1 butternut squash (approximately 750g/1 lb 10 oz), halved and deseeded** OR 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tsp rapeseed oil, plus a smidge extra for oiling a baking tray
1 onion, diced (or 1 large leek)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Bramley apple OR two eating apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
2 tbsp fresh gingerroot, peeled and minced or grated (more to taste) OR 1 heaped tsp ground ginger
small cinnamon stick OR 1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon
1.2 litre/40 fluid oz vegetable stock (have more to thin to your liking, if needed)
salt and pepper (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Brush oil onto a baking sheet and place the squash halves cut-side down on the sheet. Bake until the squash is starting to blacken and blister – about 45 minutes. Remove the squash from the oven and allow to cool before scooping out the cooked amber flesh. Roughly chop then set aside.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the onions or leek and sauté – covered – for 3 minutes before adding the garlic, apples, ginger and garlic. Recover the pot and cook for a further 10 minutes, until everything is softened. Add the squash and vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick (if using) before blending with a stick/hand blender, or working in batches, use a food processor or blender. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, if desired. Serves 4.
Quick method: Cube peeled raw butternut squash or sweet potatoes. Add the cubes to the pot after the onion and garlic have softened, pour over the stock and fast-simmer for 20-25 minutes. The soup won’t have as rich a taste as the roasted version but it saves a few calories and it still tastes really good. UPDATE: This is the way I now make this soup – super easy! (November 2013).
Toasted seed garnish: Use the seeds scooped out of the butternut squash halves to make a gorgeously crunchy garnish or salad topping. To be honest, they usually don’t make it to garnish stage as I tend to hoover them straight off the baking tray, save for a couple of tablespoons worth. What you do: Separate the seeds by pinching them with your fingers, rinse them in water and pat dry on some kitchen paper. Rub any remaining stringy orange bits off of the seeds and put the seeds into a small bowl. Pour over 1/2 tsp of a neutral oil, like rapeseed/canola, and sprinkle over a flavoured salt blend of your choice, or perhaps some garlic salt/powder or smoked paprika: mix all together with your fingers. You can skip the added oil bit but I think it helps crisp the seeds up. Pop these onto a baking tray and bake at 150C/300F for about 12-15 minutes, or until a few pop. Allow to cool before storing in an airtight container. We like these seeds much better than commercially produced pumpkin seeds.