Butternut Squash & White Bean Soup

My grandmother would often tell me, “If you’re polite, you’ll go hungry.”  This philosophy of hers was doled out often and worked on so many levels, and it didn’t always have to be about food (though that was where it was primarily used). This isn’t to say that if you’re rude, you’ll get food, but instead, if you like something, and you want a little more, you’re more than welcome to it, just don’t be shy in asking. Whenever I visited her, at her home, she would always offer to make me a sandwich (or something else) to eat. “Oh no thank you Grandma, I’m fine.” I would say. There would be a slight pause and then I would hear… “Okay but remember, if you’re polite, you’ll go hungry”.  For a brief few seconds I would sit quietly, maybe looking up in the air as if I was searching for some divine inspiration, and then…“Oh, okay maybe just a half sandwich please”. Now it should be noted that most of the time I did want a small bite to eat, but simply wanted to hear her say her well-rehearsed line.  She had a second philosophy that she would utter almost as much as her “polite” philosophy, which was, “If you burn your butt, you’ll have to sit on your blisters”.  I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times she said those words to me. Not necessarily about me per se, but about almost anything. If she saw a news report of someone being convicted of a crime… she would say it. If she saw a show like Jerry Springer where someone was caught cheating on their spouse… she would say it. If someone gave an incorrect answer on a game show (that she thought they should have known – and mind you the only game show she usually watched was Wheel of Fortune)… she would say it. I actually think she really liked this saying, because she could work it into practically any conversation.   

My grandfather had a few “sayings” of his own that he liked to use, and he used them as often as he could. “You made out like a bandit!” and “Jesse James had two guns!” are two that were used at any birthday he was at… or Christmas… or basically any time anybody gave anybody else a gift. These utterances didn’t necessarily correlate to the number of gifts you received either, but if you did get a lot (say, more than two) he would change the inflection in his voice adding an air of complete and utter disbelief at your fortune. In my house, no gift exchange could ever be complete without hearing those two phrases.  It made me feel sorry for Jesse James in a way though, knowing that he had to rob people with his two guns in order to get a Mr. Mystico’s Mind Melting 30 Piece Magic Kit – (with vanishing wand and lifelike felt top-hat). Plus, as I would look upon my four or five gifts and he was telling me I was “making out like a bandit”, I had to think that perhaps bandit was not a very wise career path. I’ll bet that was why I never became one… Thanks Grandpa for that life lesson! I am sure that he had more of these little tidbits but the only other one I can remember right now is the one he said at every weekly Sunday dinner we spent together: “This wine is good, but not as good as that Johannesburg Riesling”. This phrase came about after one particular dinner where there were a few bottles of Firestone Johannesburg Riesling at the table. After a glass (or two), my grandfather declared that it was the best wine he ever had.  From that day forward, at every Sunday meal, no matter what wine was served, he would repeat that phrase.  If, on the odd occasion there was a Sunday dinner without him, (and even for many years after he passed away) somebody else would be sure to say it instead. In fact, for a good while, if wine was served at any meal (Sunday or not) you could bet someone at the table would utter those words. As the years went on and with my grandparents long since passed away, we heard these sayings less and less until about the only time they came up was at special events like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.  

Thanksgiving, more so than any other time, is when we seem to recount family memories. It’s hard to say how some of the oddball things we talk about at our dinner table come up, but they always do. Someone is scooping mashed potatoes onto their plate when all of a sudden they’ll say, “hey remember how James used to break everything in the house?” - That’s true by the way, I went through a long, long, phase where everything I touched, sat on, or looked at, shattered. That of course leads to other stories - yes, I broke the arm of the sofa while playing “Hot Lava”, and still more stories - yep, at the age of four I wandered unaccompanied through our neighborhood, very early in the mornings, letting myself into other peoples houses, eating their food and watching their TV’s.  I don’t believe this recounting of past memories is exclusive to our house in any way, as I have spoken to many people who have had similar experiences. I think that there is something special about Thanksgiving and the gathering of family and/or friends that brings out this phenomenon and I actually think it’s because of the familiarity of the food.  

At least in our house the Thanksgiving dinner was virtually the same, year after year, and I think there is a sense of nostalgia in that which puts you in the mindset of all things past. When sitting down to eat it’s hard not to think about the many years where you had to sit at the kids table, it’s hard not to think about how I made the pumpkin pie without sugar in it one year, and it’s hard not to remember that one year when the cranberry sauce was spectacularly good.

Perhaps when we start thinking and talking about past Thanksgivings, we are just automatically prone to start talking about the past in general and before you know it we’re bringing up stories that time had almost buried  - yeah, I used to climb out of my crib and sleep at the top of the stairs instead. Each memory recounted leads us down a path of other memories or funny anecdotes until the table is finally cleared and the family has relegated themselves to the sofas, and chairs in front of the TV, waiting for just enough time to pass before heading into the kitchen to make a turkey sandwich. 

It’s been a fair number of years since all of my siblings have gathered in one place for Thanksgiving, but for me, each year, there is something I will always think about despite who graces my table, and it is what I tell anyone who ever eats at my home: If you’re polite, you’ll go hungry…

On to this soup… I have made a few versions of butternut squash soup in my day. Most have involved simply cooking the squash and other vegetables in a broth and then pureeing the cooked mix in a blender. I even think the first soup I ever made in my Vitamix was butternut squash soup. I will say that in most cases, I have not been disappointed with any of the soups I have made but I have always thought that they could use just a little something extra, if you know what I mean. Then back in 2016 this recipe appeared among the pages of Cook’s Illustrated and as soon as I read it, I thought it sounded like just the ticket.  I like this soup because it’s not just a squash puree, it’s its older, much wiser, sister.  It’s not complicated to make which is a plus for me and that really helps if you’re preparing this during the busy holidays, when you have a lot of other things to do… like trying to figure out what stories you’ll tell at Thanksgiving dinner (just remember to tell nice stories and be kind to one another). For this soup you will need a food processor to make the pesto and if you have a potato masher that will come in super handy (though a large sturdy fork will work in a pinch). 

Here is how I make this:

Ingredients:

For the Pesto:

  • ½ cup walnuts, toasted

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 cup fresh parsley leaves

  • ½ cup fresh sage leaves

  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (½ cup), plus more for serving

  • salt & pepper (to taste)

 For the Soup:

  • 1 (2 to 2½ pound) butternut squash

  • 4 cups chicken stock

  • 3 cups water

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 pound leaks, white & light green parts only, halved lengthwise, sliced thin, washed thoroughly.

  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • ¾ teaspoon salt

  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 3 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans

  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Directions:

For the Pesto:

Put the walnuts and the garlic in a food processor and pulse about 5 times until they are coarsely chopped. Add the parsley and the sage and with the processor running, slowly add in the oil, processing until smooth, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

For the Soup:

Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the squash, removing both the skin and the fibrous threads from below the skin (peel until the squash is completely orange with no white flesh remaining). 

Trim the ends then cut the round bulb section from the squash and cut that in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds, then cut each half into 4 wedges and set aside.

Carefully dice the remaining squash into ⅓-inch pieces, keeping these separate from the wedge pieces for now.  The squash can be a little slippery so be careful when cutting. 

In a medium saucepan set over high heat, bring those squash wedges, the broth, the water, the butter, and the soy sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium, cover the pot partially and allow the soup to simmer vigorously until the squash is very tender and starting to fall apart, about 20 minutes. 

Use a potato masher (or very sturdy fork) to mash the squash, still in the broth, until it is completely broken down. Basically just obliterate it, you want a nice broth here. When it’s all smashed up, cover the pot to keep the “squash stock” warm and set the pot aside.

Put the vegetable oil in a large heavy bottomed, stockpot or Dutch oven and place over a medium heat until the oil is shimmering. 

Add the leeks and the tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks have softened and the tomato paste has darkened, about 5 minutes. 

Stir in the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds, scraping up the darkened tomato paste from the bottom of the pot as you stir.

Add in the squash pieces, the salt, and the pepper and cook, again stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. Again, keep scraping up that darkened stuff from the bottom of the pot as it will add loads of flavor to the finished soup.

Next, pour in the “squash broth” and allow the soup to come to a simmer, then cover the pot partially, and simmer for 10 minutes.  You should adjust the heat as needed to keep the soup at a simmer and not boiling.

Now, add in the beans and their liquid, again partially cover the pot, and continue to let the soup simmer, stirring it occasionally just until the squash is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes is all it should take. 

Finally, stir in the vinegar and season with salt and pepper as needed to taste. 

Serve, passing the pesto and extra Parmesan separately. 

Riley sat himself between the stove and the dining room and was quite pleased with himself.