Butternut Squash Soup & Polenta Towers
Although the sun is shining in Northern California this mid-December, it has been deceptively chilly outside, especially once the sun goes down. With temperatures below normal this past week, and another “Spare the Air Day” (an Only in Marin phenomenon, I believe, where we are not allowed to burn wood or use pellet stoves), the best way I can think of to make my house feel warm and cozy is to have a big pot of hot soup bubbling away on the stove. It won’t necessarily warm up your house like a good, old fashioned fire, but it will help your kitchen feel homey and welcoming, and smell divine. I remember my friend, Kim, once telling me that when she wanted her family to think she cooked all day, she would throw onions and garlic in a saute pan for a few minutes. She was very smart and I’m sure her family loved coming home to the wonderful smells coming from her kitchen. You can also greet your holiday guests with hot apple cider (apple cider with cinnamon sticks and cloves) which makes your home smell like Christmas.
Butternut squash soup is my standard this time of year. It’s flavorful and low fat, as are most of my dishes, since I use vegetable or chicken broth instead of the cream or cream cheese called for in many recipes. Roasting the squash first, makes it very easy to peel and retains more vitamins than peeling and boiling. The recipe calls for fresh ginger which must be minced very finely. An alternative would be to add a 1 inch peeled chunk of ginger to the soup after it has been pureed and then remove before serving. Another good short cut would be to use a teaspoon of ginger paste. This soup is especially delicious served piping hot with a dollop of cold sour cream or non-fat yogurt (My favorite is local, Straus Family European Style yogurt, made here in Marin County) and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds.
The Polenta Tower is an easy dish to make and fun to serve. It also works great on a buffet or as a fancy dish to bring to a potluck, although it works better to omit the marinara sauce. I am a big believer that cooking should be as easy as possible and will take shortcuts when available. For some recipes I would make my own polenta from scratch but not for this dish. The Food Merchants Brand, pre-cooked polenta in the tube, is perfect for this recipe. It is organic, (non-GMO), fat free, wheat free and gluten free. Best of all, it’s already in the perfect shape. There may be other brands that are just as good but this is what is in my refrigerator. The vegetables in this recipe can be altered for what is in season or what you already have. Vegetables that can be sliced into rounds work the best. Be creative and have fun with your food! Vegans should omit the mozzarella and sour cream.
Butternut Squash Soup
1 butternut squash
1 large or 2 small leeks
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbsn olive oil or butter
1 tsp finely minced ginger, or to taste
6 cups vegetable broth
sour cream or non-fat yogurt (optional)
¼ cup pumpkin seeds or pepitas (optional)
- Cut butternut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. You can use a dry paper towel to get the last bits of pulp. Oil a glass baking dish and place squash in the dish cut side down. Cook at 375 degrees for about an hour, or until a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the squash. Let cool.
- Cut the leeks lengthwise and wash thoroughly under running water, fanning the layers of the leek like a deck of cards to remove any grit hidden in between. Slice lengthwise and chop, using the white part only.
- In a large stock pot, saute leek, onion and ginger in olive oil until soft.
- Scoop out squash from the shell and add to the stock pot, breaking it up with a wooden spoon.
- Add 2 cups of broth and stir, cooking for another 10 minutes. Let cool slightly.
- Puree the squash mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth. You may have to do it in two batches. If your puree does not come out silky smooth or you can see bits of leek, you may want to cook it a bit longer and puree it again.
- Return it to a clean stock pot and add the rest of the broth. Heat on medium to low heat another 10 to 20 minutes to let the flavors blend.
- Toast the pumpkin seeds in a small, dry saute pan over medium heat for a couple of minutes until they are golden and lose their raw taste. Let cool.
- Ladle soup into bowls and top with sour cream and toasted pumpkin seeds.
(Makes about 8 towers)
2 cups marinara sauce (Use your favorite or make your own, recipe below)
1 18 oz tube of cooked polenta
1 ball or 3-4 boccoccini fresh mozzarella (optional)
4 smaller portobella or crimini mushrooms,
1 japanese eggplant
1-2 ripe tomatoes
1 small bunch fresh basil
2-3 Tbsn olive oil
- Remove plastic from polenta, cut off curved ends and cut into ½ inch rounds.
- Drain mozzarella and cut into ½ inch rounds
- Wash and dry eggplant, zucchini and tomato and slice them into rounds as well. Cut stems from mushrooms even with the cap and sliced in half horizontally. If they are small, leave whole. Slice mozzarella.
- Wash and dry about 6 large basil leaves and slice them into ribbons.
- Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a pan over medium to medium high heat and saute polenta until golden on both sides. Remove and set aside.
- Add another tablespoon oil, a bit of chopped garlic and saute the eggplant and then the zucchini and mushrooms, adding more oil if necessary. (Note: If you have time, you can salt the eggplant slices and let sit for 10 minutes or so. Eggplant which has ‘sweated’ usually absorbs less oil.) Remove from and set aside.
- To assemble the ‘towers’, ladle ½ cup marinara sauce onto the middle of a plate. Place a polenta circle on top of the sauce, then top with mozzarella, tomato, eggplant, mushroom and zucchini, depending on their size. I usually go from biggest on the bottom to smallest on the top.
- Garnish with fresh basil.
Makes 3 cups
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 Tbsn fresh basil, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsn olive oil
½ tsp salt
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- Heat olive oil in a saucepan and saute garlic for a few minutes. Add basil and crushed tomatoes and stir to combine.
- Bring to a boil and add salt. Simmer about 45 minutes.
- Before serving add balsamic vinegar and stir to combine