SWEET’NING UP THE CHILI – BUT NOT TOO MUCH: PUMPKIN/SWEET POTATO CHILI WITH BEANS & CHICKEN

At home, we ate our pumpkin chili with melted cheddar cheese atop!

It’s that time of year again- food, food, food. The holidays aren’t just about gifting and – for church, synagogue, mosque and temple goers – celebrating a holy event. They’re about gathering together of family and friends, enjoying each other’s company. And that means, “Feed ’em!” But this also entails remembering that not everyone lives in the best of circumstances, especially in these tough economic times. We may struggle to keep up with the bills and pay for transportation to work or the grocery store and other basics, but not everyone has a job to go to or even enough to eat. So it’s important to somehow “pay it forward” (as that movie so poignantly advised). Today’s recipe, in honor of all holidays from Thanksgiving through the end of December, is the chili recipe I created for daughter Kristen’s workplace chili & bake sale / raffle & silent auction – an event that raises money for charity.

Last year was the first year I contributed a large batch of chili for the sale, and this year I decided to bake as well. Cheesey Cornbread (with extra cheese) to go with the chili and Cardamon Risotto Cookies (a twist on my regular Risotto Cookies, with sugar-cinnamon also replacing the frosting). Then, at the last minute (several hours before we were to deliver food to the office), I decided to throw in some Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins (bananas too ripe for me to eat on cereal – I like ’em when there’s a little green left on the peel!). The muffin recipe will follow in another blog entry.

A busy, delicious two days (well, you didn’t think I was going to whip up all that good stuff and not indulge myself?!), and a lucky time too. After the sale was over, Kris called. I thought she was simply letting me know how much they’d brought in. This year’s proceeds are being split between the local food pantry and agencies providing aid to New York City and Long Island victims of Hurricane Sandy. After Kristen told me they’d raised well over $5,000 (eventual total was $5,700), I was about to hang up when she called out, “Wait! You won one of the raffle baskets!”

Not only did I win a raffle basket, it was The One I’d hoped to get, if I won anything at all (which I wasn’t expecting). The huge plastic container included a 19” television and a ROKU with 6-month subscription to Netflix. We already enjoy Netflix so that’s a nice credit on our account, but I was thrilled to acquire a small TV for my downstairs office/artroom (for when it is finally remodeled, which Bill promises will happen after Christmas, although other work on upstairs might take precedence). It won’t be anything fancy but homey enough for me! Oh yeah—the theme of the basket was “Holiday Movie Night” and the box was also packed with things like a warm (red) throw, peppermint cocoa mix, a Santa mug, a dark & white chocolate peppermint bark candy bar, and microwave popcorn. (The candy bar did not last long. I love peppermint bark.)

In addition to such good fortune, I was pleased to hear that all of my chili disappeared into the mouths of many of my daughter’s co-workers. Kris said there were plenty of positive remarks. Apparently, several of them are interested in seeing the recipe on Kitchen Cauldron when posted. One woman made a point of approaching Kristen afterward to say it was the best chili she’d ever tasted! I have to agree with that statement because I think it’s the best chili recipe I’ve ever conjured up. Bill and I enjoyed it immensely at dinner that night.

Here’s hoping you give it a try and really like it too. Don’t be put off by what looks like a long list of ingredients. Once the peeling and chopping is done, it’s mostly about getting the stuff into the pot and simmering. Really easy, as chili generally tends to be.

PUMPKIN/SWEET POTATO CHILI (WITH BEANS AND CHICKEN)
Yield: Depending upon quantity of beans & if including chicken, makes 8-10 quarts of chili

Ingredients

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 tablespoon parsley
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 or 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ½” to ¾” pieces (optional, especially if you’re a vegetarian)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 medium-to-large onions, peeled and chopped (large or small pieces, whatever your taste)
  • 3 celery stalks, peeled and chopped (including leaves, if any on stalk)
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into small pieces
  • 6 peppers (I used 2 yellow and 4 green), seeded and chopped
  • salt & pepper to sprinkle over veggies
  • 4 or 5 garlic cloves, peeled and diced (I had roasted some, so I used the paste from those cloves)
  • 1 29-oz. can pumpkin purée (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
  • 2 14.5 oz. cans diced tomatoes
  • 1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
  • 4 cups vegetable stock, plus 4 cups chicken stock (or use any combo of these stocks, or just one type; homemade preferred by not required)
  • 3-4 tablespoons chili powder (more if you prefer)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 generous teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon mace (optional, but I would always use it; if you don’t have it, could increase nutmeg)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional; I meant to add this & forgot!)
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
  • a few sprinkles dried marjoram (optional- not required if you don’t have on hand)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt (I used combo of table salt and sea salt)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 4 to 6 cans beans – I used dark red kidney, black, great northern, aduki and pink beans, as well as chickpeas
  • additional salt and pepper, if desired
  • possibility: more stock (or water) or some tomato paste, if a thinner or thicker chili is desired

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Place sweet potatoes in an oven-friendly dish or pan, dab with the butter and sprinkle with dried parsley. Bake until fork slips through chunks but they aren’t likely to disintegrate after additional cooking in chili sauce. I use a spatula to turn once in a while. (I also cover with aluminum foil for first 15 minutes or so, then remove so they get a bit browned.) This should take perhaps 30-40 minutes but begin checking earlier. Remove from oven and set aside until ready to add to chili. NOTE: this can be done the day before, if you like.
  2. In a large stock pot, heat the oil plus butter on medium level. Add chicken and sautée just to lightly brown (don’t worry if completely cooked through). (About 4-5 minutes.)
  3. Add onion, celery, carrot and peppers. Spinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Sautée for about 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add garlic to pot, sautéing for another minute (be careful – garlic easily burns).
  5. Stir in pumpkin purée, tomatoes and tomato sauce, combining well.
  6. Stir in chicken and/or vegetable stock.
  7. Add chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace (if using), clove, cardamom (if using), parsley, marjoram (if using), salt and pepper.
  8. Simmer over medium-low heat for about an hour.
  9. In the meantime, drain and rinse the canned beans.
  10. After the contents of the stock pot has simmered for the suggested time, stir beans into chili. Bring back to a simmer and continue to cook for another 20 to 30 minutes.
  11. Add roasted sweet potatoes. Simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes.
  12. Taste for seasoning. Add salt and/or pepper, if desired.

Serve with cornbread on the side or some excellent artisan bread. Nice with shredded cheddar cheese atop, or a dab of sour cream.

In my experience, chili tastes even better as a leftover. Like any tomato-based dish, the flavor deepens as it sits in the fridge. It also freezes really well. Make some for a crowd, and reserve some for you and yours too!

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Slow-Cooker Squash and Sweet Potato Soup (Sneakin’ in Those Sweet Tubers!)

 
If you were at the Women Writers and Artists Matrix Weekend in Saratoga Springs, NY earlier this month – specifically, at Amejo’s house on Saturday night for the “Women, Wine & Cheese Reception” – then you might’ve been waiting for this post, for this recipe. It was a big hit that night, devoured even before a few latecomers arrived at Amejo’s home! Of course, I forgot to take any pictures, being busy being social and all. I decided, however, to whip a batch again last week, but not just for the camera. Bill hadn’t gotten a taste (I took every last drop off to the event with me!), and it’s such a good way for me to sneak a bit of sweet potato into his diet. Yay! for that beta-carotene and all the other nutrition it provides. And the “magic” too, which I’ll get to later. (Incidentally, if you’re new to this blog and don’t know about The Terrible Three, or the only three vegetables my hubby loathes, you might want to check out the 12/11/11 post covering our delicious experiences at internationally-famous Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, NY.)

Marilyn at WWAM Weekend, with an International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) SisterWriter.

The chicken stock mentioned in my previous post turned out to be the best I’ve ever conjured up. Which might not seem like much to say, since I think I’ve only made it from scratch once, perhaps a year or two ago for a batch of chicken soup – except that this version made a huge difference in not only this soup but also in the couple applications I managed to dream up for it since. So I’m sold on going homemade as much as possible, especially for soup. In fact, there’s a pot of stock simmering on the cooktop upstairs now, its intoxicating aroma wafting its way downstairs as I type. I expect to split this batch between the freezer and cooking up a pot of White Bean Soup (with Chicken) for the WomanWords workshop this weekend with Alice Orr at Still Point.

Our recent hot weather is supposed to break, and the mid-60s temp expected for Saturday is just fine for soup. Stock done today; soup-making sometime tomorrow, in between packing to leave early for Still Point on Friday (picking up Alice at Saratoga train station before settling in at SP!). Oh yeah, I’m also going to Leslie’s this afternoon to do art and then on to grocery-shop for the weekend. Yikes! What a schedule… but I do intend to finish and post this blog before all this is accomplished.
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Before providing the recipe, how about a little of the food’s magic? This blog is dubbed, after all, Kitchen Cauldron. and I do like to bring it (the magic) into some posts, exploring ancient beliefs about a food along with some nutritional facts. If a witch is one who practices alchemy, who transforms one simple item into another of greater value (think: lead into gold as the metaphor goes, or more to the point for KC, basic food items into nutritious and delicious delights), then that must be me. Further, if a witch is one who takes experiences and thoughts and transforms them into words, why then I also qualify as one!

Squash, this soup’s main ingredient, has been around a long time so there’s plenty of lore. According to my handy Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003), it’s been in the Americas since at least 4,000 B.C.E. It was so sacred to the Hopi that they even created one of their spiritual (Kachina) dolls topped with a head of squash and wearing squash blossom necklaces. This vegetable, in any form (butternut, zucchini, etc.), inspires spirituality. If someone maintains s/he doesn’t like squash, then serve that person zucchini bread! Cunningham says squash can “increase awareness of the non-physical reality around us,” and he also lists it among foods that are “generally used for promoting courage, protection, aggression, sex and health.” In The Kitchen Witch Companion: Simple and Sublime Culinary Magic by Patricia Telesco (Citadel Press, 2005), the author writes in the intro to a recipe titled Multi-Tasking Squash, “Squash comes in a huge variety of colors and sizes, and some of these can grow to exceed 240 pounds and produce hundreds of seeds. These characteristics provide this vegetable with the symbolic value of slow, steady development that leads to substantial rewards.” Hmmm. Got a big project you’re working on? Maybe this is just the soup to enhance your ability to ace it!

I think I’ve gotten into pumpkin and sweet potato symbolism before, but quickly:

  • For sweet potatoes, those orange-hued tubers, think love and sex, the ability to excite desire (it goes both ways though – giving love, receiving love). In fact, Patricia Telesco’s A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook, (Llewellyn Publications, 1994), lists as the sweet potato’s “Magical Association” the following: “Well founded, gentle love.”
  • For pumpkin (more orange!), think healing and money symbols – the fruitfulness of the earth inspires this; and pumpkins have been known to symbolize Mother Goddess. (To enhance its ability to attract money, it’s said that one should serve it with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg – no wonder pumpkin pie is so popular!)

Then there are the potatoes in the soup. Earth element, since they come from it, they’re known for protective qualities and for promoting compassion (now, don’t they sound like Mother Earth sorts of attributes?). The Spaniards brought the first potatoes to Europe in 1534, where they claimed the veggie could cure impotency. This led to the value of spuds jumping outrageously high – in some cases, sales amounted to the equivalent of $1,000 in today’s U.S. dollars! Of course, this did lead to a problem when potatoes were declared “unholy” in some parts of the world (I believe Scotland was the first) and their consumption was banned. Cunningham suggests that one might make the potato’s effects stronger by adding onions, chives, dill weed, rosemary and/or parsley, but I’d add one bit of advice: Don’t throw out your Viagra either.

Garlic cloves also possess protection and health qualities. In fact, in ancient times, garlic was touted as a cure for insanity. And Roman soldiers consumed it believing that it afforded them courage on the battlefield. There’s one stipulation here, however, with garlic: don’t bother with anything like bottled, canned or dried. Allegedly, it’s only the fresh stuff that works.

It seems all the ingredients in the chicken broth are aimed at good health and well-being (Jewish mothers knew what they were talking about!), especially the chicken that played a major part in producing it. As for the spices added to this Squash and Sweet Potato Soup, they offer magical benefits too: black pepper promotes cleansing, purification, protection and banishing; salt also symbolizes cleansing and purification, with grounding thrown in; bay leaf enhances psychic powers, strength and health; sage adds possibilities for purification and wisdom; and parsley brings good for luck and protection from accidents. (In addition to other sources previously mentioned, I consulted Cait Johnson’s Witch in the Kitchen: Magical Cooking for All Seasons [Destiny Books, 2001] on the spices.)

I can’t forget to mention a few utensils you might be utilizing as you produce your soup, for the tools of the trade are not to be overlooked as part of the magic. Telesco provides a “Magical Association” for several of these. For instance, she lists a blender as being associated with “Mingling with others, stirring up energy.” Not a bad association, and plenty valid if you’re going to share your soup with others. I also assume this  works for a food processor and an immersion blender as well (and even a hand masher). She lists “Knife” as magically connected with “Cutting away, sharpness of mind, separation.” A fork might symbolize “Piercing, penetrating, perception.” I found nothing about slow-cookers, by the way, but I tend to think they’re about patience and the wisdom of taking care of oneself (as the cook, I think of an occasional slow-cooker meal as a rest period for me, at least once everything’s prepped and in the pot, then left to cook for hours during which I might write, read and otherwise own my own time!).

Cunningham says cups and bowls are related to the element of water and are therefore “entirely receptive.” They possess loving energies. He tells us that earlier cultures connected rounded pots and bowls with the Great Mother – a concept that was pretty much universal. Goddess energy. Rounded pots and bowls, like the earth. The association of witches with an iron pot, the cauldron used throughout Europe for cooking, derives from Shakespeare’s “three witches” scene in Macbeth. The old Bard’s witches weren’t doing anything at all unusual in using a cauldron for “brewing” – what was weird was what the women were cooking up (including their ingredients)! Today’s Wiccans, Cunningham states, honor the cauldron as a symbol of the Mother Goddess.

That’s more than enough magic for one post, except that I must state my best take on all of this. Yes, it’s a bit of kitchen alchemy – as I defined it earlier. And there’s lots of magic in food, in the ways it can nourish us, give us strength, make us happy, bring people together and much more. There’s magic in food like there’s magic in everything, and intention is its best enhancer. Having just read the newly revised (to add artwork) Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan, illustrated by Maira Kalman (Penguin Press, 2011), it feels right to believe that setting some of the simple intentions that Pollan suggests also sets the stage for Magic to happen (like, “#2, Don’t Eat Anything Your Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food, or #19, Eat Only Foods That Have Been Cooked by Humans, or #64, Try to Spend as Much Time Enjoying the Meal as It Took to Prepare It, or #74,Don’t Get Your Fuel from the Same Place Your Car Does. Following through on even a few of them might make you a Witch – whether you think so or not!

And now for my latest Witch’s Brew~~

SLOW-COOKER SQUASH AND SWEET POTATO SOUP
Yields enough for a small crowd (10 to 20, if they keep it to cups instead of bowls!)

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, peeled & chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove (or 2 small), peeled & diced
  • 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed (about ¾” cubes)
  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded & cubed
  • 1 14-to-16-ounce can of pumpkin puree (however it’s packaged, but NOT pumpkin pie mix); if you’re into using fresh pumpkin, go for it (I haven’t gone there yet…)
  • 2 medium potatoes (or equivalent in leftover mashed potatoes)
  • 2 large bay leaves (or 3 small)
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sage
  • 4 cups chicken stock (homemade preferred, but if not available then use a low or no sodium brand)
  • salt & pepper to your personal taste (but at least a teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper!)
  • options for serving: light cream (to stir in); Greek yogurt, sour cream, parsley and/or croutons (for toppings)

Process

  1. In a large frying pan, sauté the onion and sweet potato for about two to three minutes.
  2. Add the garlic and continue to sauté for another minute or two. Watch carefully, stir as necessary, being sure that the garlic doesn’t burn (if it burns, you’ll have to start over… no “fix” for burned garlic taste!).
  3. Remove frying pan from heat and set aside.
  4. Add the butternut squash and potatoes to the bottom of the slow-cooker.
  5. Spread pumpkin puree over squash and potatoes.
  6. Top contents of slow-cooker with the sautéed contents of the frying pan.
  7. Sprinkle the bay leaf and dried herbs (thyme, parsley & sage) over everything, as well as salt and pepper (you can season further with s&p, if needed, although it’s best to wait until after the soup has cooked fully).
  8. Pour the four cups of chicken broth over the contents of the slow-cooker.
  9. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours. Test at 3½ hours for doneness (potatoes and butternut squash must be well done, enough for a fork to easily pierce). Stir and replace top to cook for added time, if necessary.
  10. When contents are done, removed bay leaves.
  11. Using an immersions blender (or food processor, stand blender or by hand with a masher), puree the mixture to the texture you enjoy most (I like it thick and chunky!).
  12. If it’s thicker than you prefer, feel free to add either more chicken stock or water, a little at a time, stirring in between. (If you plan to add light cream before serving, allow for that extra liquid – although you probably won’t stir in more than ¼ to ½ cup of the dairy if you truly want to savor the vegetables!)
  13. Freeze or serve with options listed above (light cream, to stir in; Greek yogurt, sour cream, parsley and/or croutons, for toppings).

 

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.