Autumn Magic: Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Soup

Wikipedia notes that Harry Potter and his friends drink pumpkin juice: “Pumpkin juice is a cold drink favoured by the Wizarding world, and among the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is drunk at any occasion, such as breakfast, lunch, at feasts… It seems to have taken on the same role that orange juice has to Muggles… [It] is readily available, [at] the Hogwarts Express.” Severus Snape threatened Harry with slipping Veritaserum in his morning pumpkin juice, convinced that the boy wizard had stolen his potion ingredients. Before a Quidditch match in his sixth year, Ron Weasley believed Harry had slipped Felix Felicis into his morning juice to help him play a perfect game. Apparently you can even taste some of the juice yourself, sans Felix Felicis I assume, if you travel to Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida.

I’m a big fan of pumpkin pie and have grown to love pumpkin soup (ever since my first taste at a favorite restaurant, The Ripe Tomato in Malta, NY, at the intersection of Routes 9 & 9P). I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, viewed the movies. Still, I’m not rushing to devise a version of J.K. Rowling’s fictional pumpkin juice, even though Wiki says Universal’s drink is “more like a feisty apple cider with a little pumpkin thrown in.” I can wait until I finally make it to Wizarding World. If you’re really dying to try a homemade version, there’s one in a cookbook I purchased over a year ago (yet another one!) titled The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz (Adams Media, Inc., 2010). I love its descriptive subtitle: From Cauldron Cakes to Knickerbocker Glory – More Than 150 Magical Recipes for Wizards and Non-Wizards Alike. That Cauldron – so symbolic of the magic of cooking and baking.

No wonder healers in ancient times attributed magical aspects to fruits, vegetables, herbs and all that could be consumed. These foods enabled them to survive. Some clearly aided them in a healing way. Othes seemed to endow them with more energy. Nourishment. Our bodies crave these nutrients, and we’re learning more these days about how their “magic” works for us.

Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003) offers information about magical attributes of foods, and there’s a short section dedicated to pumpkin. It’s said to be “ruled by the moon” which can be useful in healing, promoting sleep, love, friendships, spirituality, among other things. They’re prominent at Halloween as we move closer to the darkness of winter, symbolizing the coming “death” of the earth (to be “reborn” in spring).  They’re also about the fruitfulness of the earth. Where he covers pies, Cunningham notes that the “magical energies” of the pumpkin pie variety are money and healing. (Did you know that pies were once illegal?!! Learned this from his book too: Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned all pies in the England in the 1600s “because they gave people pleasure.” In 1660, Charles II restored this pleasure to the Commonwealth when he ascended to the throne.)

So if one believes that all these energies exist within any pumpkin dish, including soup, what happens when sweet potatoes get added? According to Wicca in the Kitchen: more money, more love, health – plus protection. Winning combo, I’d say. Then maybe add some carrots: yikes! that falls under the element of Fire, and you could be asking for a little sex too!

That’s a lot to ask of one bowl of soup. I’m willing to settle for delicious flavor plus excellent nutrients. Yet the magical aspects intrigue me. I understand their sources. I respect the connection with earth and her bounty. And who wouldn’t want a little more $$$ in this down economy (should I be sipping pumpkin soup or eating p-pie, while at the same time scratching at a NYS Lottery scratch-off card?)? I eat the soup because it’s wonderful; I also like the idea of inviting a little magic into my life on a regular basis while knowing we all have to work and believe in ourselves in order to truly make it work. For me, cooking up soup speaks to the definition of alchemy – it takes a baser thing (basic foods, often leftovers) and turns it into gold (something delicious – in this blog entry’s case, pumpkin-sweet potato soup).

In yesterday’s post about the Moosewood Restaurant, I mentioned that my dear hubby – who incidentally will eat just about anything I cook, even what doesn’t quite work out – abhors only three vegetables: Brussels sprouts, lima beans and sweet potatoes. The lima bean aversion comes from too much soggy succotash when he was a kid (mostly prepared from canned goods). Maybe while growing up he only got the over-sweet sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows, which could explain that dislike (never liked that concoction myself). As for the Brussels sprouts – well, they’re Brussels sprouts. Lots of people hate them. They might be bitter if too large or prepared in certain ways, but they can also be amped up nicely (bacon adds terrific taste, roasting them’s good, sautéing in a bit of garlic before serving adds flavor, etc.).

I happen to love all three of Bill’s Dreaded Veggies, having recovered from my dislike of sweet potatoes years ago. I try to sneak them into my cooking, for their nutritional benefits, when I can. I toss frozen lima beans into soup once in a while and he’ll eat some. The sprouts are pretty much a lost cause. My shining success, however, has been adding sweet potatoes to pumpkin soup. It all happened because I wanted texture.

I’m not a big fan of totally smooth “cream of…” soups. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it feels hardier and healthier to me if a few “chunks” swim in a thicker brew. Less processed. Even if all of the ingredients are natural, not coming out of a box that’s prepped at some factory, it seems to me that there’s a bit more fiber available to aid the digestive system… And that the creamy part should be thick-creamy. That being said, I must repeat what I said in yesterday’s blog entry: the Creamy Butternut Squash Soup at the Moosewood was as smooth as any soup can get, not thick, and – as I said – probably the best butternut I’ve ever tasted. There are always exceptions.

But back to the pumpkin soup that became pumpkin/sweet potato.

This recipe is one of those check-out-lotsa-recipes-then-make-up-something deals. I created my first version so long ago I don’t recall the whole process, but likely I started with my favorite (of about five on my shelves) soup cookbook, Robert Ackart’s A Celebration of Soups, the one Mom gave me many years ago. I expect I also consulted The Complete Book of 400 Soups, edited by Anne Sheasby (Hermes House, Anness Publishing Ltd., 2005, 2007), which is one of those well-illustrated cookbook types often on bargain tables in large bookstore chains. Then there are always my Epicurious and Food Network apps on the iPad, plus the entire internet to surf for ideas.

No matter how I conjured up the most recent recipe, I always think of it as flexible. There’s plenty of room for change. Eliminate a spice, add one. Don’t use the sweet potato. Or the carrots (this last time, when I took pictures for the blog, I had none in the house!). Want a thinner soup, then add more broth. Thicker? Use less broth, or simmer it longer so some liquid evaporates. The latter can also deepen the flavor (just don’t burn the soup!). Adjust other soup ingredients according to how you’ve revised your recipe.

If you want to use mace but can’t find it in your local grocery store, try a specialty store. In case you don’t even know what mace is: it’s the dried “lacy” reddish covering (or aril) of the nutmeg seed. Those big, rounded, whole nutmegs you buy are seeds, not nuts (at least I now buy them, often grinding just the portion I need with a small microplane).  I hadn’t any mace on my shelves for years but remembered its deeper nutmeg-y taste. When I discovered Bel Cibo Fine Gourmet Foods and Spices in Schenectady last year (1740 Union Street), it occurred to me that perhaps I might find it there. Yup: found, purchased. Fresh ground spices at Bel Cibo, and the owner (Jeanette) packs yours into an individual metal container and labels it. Jeanette is a joy to talk with too – helpful, full of suggestions.

As for the rest of the ingredients:

  • You don’t have to roast the sweet potato and carrot; you can use your usual method for thoroughly cooking it. I happen to like the little boost of flavor that roasting adds. And the butter. A few bites generally make it into my salivating mouth before the rest gets added to the pot.
  • I used shallots for the first time in the most recent batch. They have a milder onion flavor than flat-out onions. They’re also a bit more expensive but I don’t use many. My preference? Well, I can always find good onions at Hannaford or the Niskayuna Co-Op; sometimes the shallots, however, don’t look or feel as fresh when I squeeze them – you can tell where I’m going with this…
  • I substitute garlic from a tube for chopped fresh garlic when I don’t have fresh, or when I’m being lazy. The former is preferred but the latter is fine. We’re not talking garlic soup here.
  • You can do the fresh pumpkin thing, if you like. I’m just not into cutting up all that squash. In fact, for the blog pictures, I wanted to once again “make it pretty,” i.e., serve the soup in real pumpkins bowls. I did not prep those little darlings myself. Bill accomplished the job in no time (or less than it would’ve taken me).
  • I use sea salt most of the time, in all cooking. Sometimes Kosher. Rarely, regular table salt. I even have a container of Sel Gris on my table, should people want the crunch of the gourmet stuff as a last minute flavor booster. No matter what, I am careful not to over-salt. Salt is necessary, but some folks are salt-sensitive.
  • In my latest version, I use turbinado sugar. Not required. Just thought I’d do the natural thing.
  • I always use Roasted Saigon Cinnamon nowadays. Don’t even have the regular stuff in my kitchen any more. But the regular stuff works too.
  • A word about broths: Sometimes I have homemade broth in the freezer. Mostly, not. I buy mine in boxed containers and, whenever possible, unsalted. I’d rather season it myself. I avoid canned broths whenever possible because so many of them are still BPA-coated inside. If it’s clearly marked “BPA-free” I might buy it. If there’s no other choice, well, so be it. Also on broths: remember that if you’re going to serve the soup to a vegetarian friend, use vegetable broth rather than chicken!
  • You don’t have to use any cream, if you enjoy a straight-out well-blended veggie soup, or if you don’t/can’t do dairy. Myself, I love the richness a little cream adds. But go easy on the cream at first, just to be sure you don’t wind up with soup tasting more like a milk product than a vegetable soup with scrumptious spices enhancing its impact on your tongue.

MARILYN’S PUMPKIN/SWEET POTATO SOUP
Serves 7 to 10, or even more, depending on how much each person wants!
(Or, serves two – then freeze most of it for a cozy soup meal at a later date)

Ingredients:
1 med. sweet potato
2 med. carrots (optional)
2 tbsp. chopped or ½ tsp. dried parsley
3 tbsp. butter (2 for roasting sweet potatoes; 1 for sautéing)
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 small onions, chopped/diced (or use 2 large shallots instead)
2 tsp. garlic, chopped
1 large (29-oz) can of pure pumpkin puree
2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. sugar (regular refined or natural cane, turbinado sugar)
½ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. ground pepper
½ tsp. Roasted Saigon cinnamon
¼ tsp. (or just a pinch, if you prefer) ground cloves – optional
¼ tsp. (or just a pinch) mace – optional
1½ tsp. brown sugar
4½ to 5½ cups chicken or vegetable broth (or less, according to taste)

¼ to ½ cup light cream, half ‘n’ half (low-fat is okay) or heavy cream (the richest option)
Sour cream or plain Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of nutmeg, for topping (optional)

OPTIONAL for SERVING: 4-6 small pie pumpkins, prepared as noted below with cinnamon, sugar and salt

Preparation & Process

  • Peel sweet potato (and carrots, if using), cut into 1 to 2 inch chunks and roast in oven (350 degrees) with 2 tbsp. butter and parsley, until sweet potato is easily punctured with a fork. Cool for 10-15 minutes. Slightly mash half of potatoes and all carrots. (If you prefer totally smooth soup, mash all sweet potatoes.)
  • Sauté onion (or shallots) and garlic gently in remaining butter plus olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pan (big enough for all other ingredients to be added).
  • Add pumpkin, mashed sweet potatoes and carrots (if using), salt, sugar, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, cloves (if using), mace (if using), and brown sugar.
  • Stir and then use immersion blender to “cream” mixture to desired smoothness (if you don’t have an immersion blender, a standard blender or food processor does the job, but you’ll probably have to work in small batches, and it can get a little messier).
  • Stir in remaining chunks of sweet potatoes, if you didn’t mash all of them.
  • Add stock/broth—gradually, until desired thickness is reached (remembering that you will add cream). You might not use all the broth.
  • Heat thoroughly but do not boil.
  • AT THIS POINT, YOU CAN STORE IN REFRIGERATOR FOR NEXT DAY, IF YOU WISH, TAKING LAST STEPS AFTER REHEATING JUST BEFORE SERVING. OR YOU CAN FREEZE THE BASIC SOUP UNTIL YOU PLAN TO USE IT.
  • When completely heated add cream, stir and keep on gentle heat source long enough to allow for reheating.
  • Serve with a dab of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt – and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

OPTIONAL SERVING SUGGESTION:

  • Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Cut wide circles around stems of pie pumpkins, large enough so you can use them as bowls; remove tops by holding onto stems; remove seeds and fiber. Be careful not to puncture bottoms.
  • Sprinkle insides with a bit of salt, sugar and cinnamon (about ¼ to ½ tsp each).
  • Place on cookie sheets and bake for 20-35 minutes, depending upon thickness of pumpkins, until fork easily punctures insides (being careful not to puncture through to outside of pumpkin when testing).
  • Remove from oven, place in wide flat bowls and scoop soup into each.
  • Add topping, if using.
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