by Carrie Honaker
Garden fever can be seen everywhere from the sold-out online seed retailers to local nurseries, and big box home and garden stores. The romance of growing your own food has once again seized Americans. I cannot open an email or read a post since sheltering-in-place took hold without some mention of planting a garden.
In 1917 Charles Lathrop Pack lit a fire across America with his call to plant gardens to support war efforts. Victory Gardens popped up everywhere with fresh squash, lettuces, beets, and onions across plots of idle land, including school yards and vacant lots. Eleanor Roosevelt even planted her own Victory Garden at the White House. Though the Victory Garden was associated with war time efforts against food shortages and in celebration of patriotism, locally-sourced produce has dominated restaurant menus and farmer’s markets in the last decade. Now with Covid-19 threatening various aspects of the food supply chain, people are looking homeward to how they can feed their families if food shortage becomes another aspect of pandemic fallout.
Gardening is not all romance though, it is diligent maintenance. Weeding the garden has to be one of the least-liked chores for a kid. I will never forget spending hours bent over rows of broccoli, lettuce, and squash meticulously pulling interlopers out so the vegetables could flourish. Growing up on a farm, my mother was a huge advocate of growing your own food, and sourcing everything you could not grow locally. I may have been the only kid who got their milk from the dairy farm across the field. That probably was because it still had that unfiltered milk taste and texture. I cannot drink milk today because all I can think of is cow piss. Unrealistic to be sure, but there it is.
My mother inspired a love of gardens and farmer’s markets in me as a child that still drives much of my food choices today. I have moved a great deal since first leaving home, sometimes for financial reasons like a pending eviction notice and sometimes for personal reasons like the need to put distance between myself and my mother, but I always seek out local farmer’s markets wherever I land, even on vacation. All that fresh, locally grown produce in one place, with the most knowledgeable people, the growers, to guide you.
There is something more fulfilling about buying from a local grower than the grocery store. There is a connection you instantly feel as the produce leaves their hands and falls into yours. The look in their eyes that says “I have shown this love and now it is your turn to help it be something more” surrounds you as you accept their offerings. Supporting the farmers seems right. The choice, though certainly more expensive than going to the big box stores, honors my childhood tutelage under Nanny and my mother who grew every bit of raw produce they cooked.
Even though it may be the best use for produce bought at a season’s height, I did not really venture into soup-making until I opened my first restaurant. Soup for some reason seemed daunting. Everything builds upon the previous ingredient, stocks are so important, and then there is hitting on just the right flavor profile for the ingredients. Too much I could not control. I bought the restaurant in the Fall of 2000 from a friend who wanted out. I took over her lease, transferred all the licenses, and boom, I was a restaurateur. Even though I graduated with a degree in English Lit, restaurants were the backbone of my education. They were the constant in my life since age 16. The business I took over was a soup and sandwich counter. Obviously, I needed to dive into the soup-making life since it was 50% of my concept.
My first soup was a Butternut Squash Bisque. The chill was just starting to hit the air, and the squash were bountiful. I poked around at my local farmer’s market. There were beautiful squash everywhere I turned — acorn, spaghetti, pattypan, yellow & green, and the needed butternut. I had made some successful butternut squash purees, this did not seem like such a leap. I purchased some gorgeous squash, a few plump Vidalia onions, a crisp granny smith apple that smelled like a sweet tart, and some fresh sage. I headed home for some recipe testing.
Did you know that butternut squash peel is some of the most acidic stuff around? Me neither, I do now.
I started peeling those suckers and looked down at my hands. The squash was exfoliating my skin at an alarming rate. I tried to wash it off, no good. I tried to moisturize, no luck either. I was not to be deterred though so I just sucked it up and continued my prep work. Also, let me just say that anybody that does not sob like a baby when they cut Vidalia onions is a stronger person than I. I survived though, and hey let’s face it you always get a little mileage out of it, if they think you really suffered over making dinner.
After the soup finished stewing, I called the family to dinner. They are my default recipe testers. They really suffer eating new foods all the time, and having to give honest feedback. My husband is maybe not critical enough, which both of my kids call him on constantly. He did eat a piece of my bread pudding off the sidewalk when we first started dating so, they could be right.
The soup was a hit–velvety smooth with just a touch of sweetness from some Vermont maple syrup.
My family is originally from Vermont, and though my children have not grown up there, they have a strong sense of heritage and pride in products from that region. I remember the excitement as a child when my aunt, Glenna would take me out on a horse-drawn sled to the trees and we would help drain the silver buckets of their sap collection. The best part though was back at the shack watching the vat of sap cooking into what would be some of the best maple syrup I have ever tasted. As kids, we would run out and grab bowls of fresh snow and run back in to have just-out-of-the-vat hot maple syrup poured over our bowls of fluffy white snow. The maple syrup immediately hardens up making the Vermont delicacy, Sugar on Snow. Native Vermonters still do this every winter as the snow gets deep and the sap begins flowing. Adding this ingredient to my first soup being served in my first restaurant seemed fitting.
If you are not from a state that sugars, you may not understand the purist obsession many of us have for real maple syrup. For example, my husband, a native Virginian, thought that stuff that comes in squeezy bottle and has “maple flavoring” as its only claim to being maple syrup was fine. In fact the first breakfast after we moved in together, I made banana pancakes. He got the “syrup” out from his pantry, and he has never lived it down. The laughter around that breakfast table drove home how far I had come from the lonely, self-loathing girl I was. I longed for a people who inspired me to heal myself for so long, and now I finally had it. We were talking, eating, and connecting together. It was not always earth-shattering conversation, but there were the two most important ingredients, laughter and love.
Butternut Squash Bisque was featured on my inaugural menu for my little lunch counter in Havana.
In these uncertain times, a garden seems a good idea. Not only are you providing some of the food for your family, but there is something therapeutic about taking a seed all the way through its life cycle, lovingly caring for it until it is ready to be harvested. Even though our war is with a virus, and we are not trying to support troops abroad, creating a space for a personal garden is something we can all do to help ourselves as we isolate. Go ahead get your hands dirty and plant some onions, butternut squash, and a little sage — you will have the stars of Butternut Squash Soup, and the knowledge that you brought them to the table.
Butternut Squash Soup
1 Granny Smith apple
1 large Vidalia onion
2 garlic cloves
3 large butternut squash (about 8 lbs.)
8 cups chicken stock (use veggie if you prefer)
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tbsp. rubbed sage
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
- Before you begin anything, peel the squash. It actually takes longer than you might think. Also, I would suggest gloves. The acid in the skin of the squash is an extremely effective exfoliant and will make your hands peel. It is not painful, but it looks kind of disturbing the first time. Either way, we need to get the squash peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes.
- Next, while you have your knife out, go ahead and chop the onions. We are going to puree them later so cuts do not matter. Same with the garlic cloves and apple, they are going to be pureed later along with everything else so beautiful knife skills are not a necessity for this dish.
- Melt the butter in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add your onions, garlic, and granny smith apple to the melted butter. Add maple syrup to the mixture and let it caramelize to a light golden brown color. Add the cinnamon, sage, and nutmeg as everything is stewing up in the syrup.
- Your kitchen should smell wonderful at this point. This is usually when my family saunters into the kitchen to check out what is going on. Once the onions, apple, and garlic have softened and melded with the maple syrup, add the squash. Sauté in the stockpot until the squash softens, about 10 minutes.
- Next comes the liquid. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the squash is very soft, about 40 minutes.
- This next step is the fun part. Get out that big ole’ immersion blender and have at that stockpot of deliciousness. You can do this with a blender if you do not have the immersion device. You will have to allow it to cool slightly, and puree it in batches so that you don’t have any soup-all-over-the-kitchen incidents. Whichever method you choose, you are looking to create a velvety smooth texture. At this point, if you are using the traditional blender method, return the soup to the pot. Take a taste to test for seasoning. I don’t salt and pepper until this point because I want to taste how the other spices have brought out the flavor of the soup first. Usually I need about a teaspoon of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill, but it depends upon your own flavor preferences.
- Allow the soup to simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes more. This makes an 8 qt. stockpot of soup and I usually end up freezing some or putting some in Tupperware for leftover meals.
I like to serve this with crumbled Applewood bacon on the side, it adds that extra shot of hominess to the soup, but serve it with whatever toppings your family would like. My kids have tried everything from sour cream to grated asiago cheese; just don’t forget the big hunk of sourdough bread to sop it up.
Photo credit: Gemma Evans, Unsplash