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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Squash strategy: Squash and kale soup (recipe)
A soup to start Thanksgiving dinner or stand on its own

One of the simple pleasures of a golden autumn is the arrival of fresh, sweet winter squash. The best variety of local squashes begins appearing in late September and, depending on where and when the first hard frost hits, generally lasts into November.

The only squash I knew about growing up were the dark green acorns that my mother split in half and roasted in the oven with butter and brown sugar for Thanksgiving. It was a revelation, years later in a vegetarian cooking class, to taste the candy sweetness of a delicata squash, sliced into thin half-rounds and sautéed with onions in a little butter and oil. Likewise, the creamy blend of grated butternut squash and Parmesan cheese cooked into risotto or ravioli.

Simmered with leftover rice or millet, squash makes a tasty, satisfying and nutritious winter breakfast porridge. Any variety will work, but my favorite for this purpose is the buttercup: dark green on the outside with a thicker, more deeply golden flesh and enough heaviness to really stick to the ribs.

To peel or not to peel, that is the question. Winter squash is distinctive for its tough outer skin, but with most varieties, the skin softens enough with cooking to be (if grown organically) quite edible. The butternut squash may be my exception to that rule. Before adding butternut squash to a soup, stew or risotto, I generally take off the skin with a vegetable peeler.

Now is the season to sample a squash curry at Madison's Thai or Laotian restaurants. The recipes - rich stews of winter squash with coconut milk, spicy curry paste, Japanese eggplant and a protein source of your choice - vary from chef to chef and with the variety of squash employed in the cooking. I haven't found one yet that wasn't in its own way delicious.

Squash has long been a staple of the Thanksgiving table. But when your family, like mine, also requires roasted sweet potatoes, serving squash baked or stuffed can seem redundant. In recent years I've started the meal with this squash and kale soup, delicate in flavor and light enough not to overshadow the meal to come. Accompanied by a hearty loaf of rustic bread, this soup can practically stand on its own.

Squash and Kale Soup

  • 1 butternut squash (about 4 cups peeled and cubed)
  • 2 leeks
  • 1 bunch curly kale
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6 cups water or stock
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • whole nutmeg for grating
  • roasted seeds for garnish

Clean and slice the leeks in half rounds and sauté them in the bottom of your soup pot in the olive oil and butter until soft. Add the cubed squash and continue to sauté for a few minutes. Add the water (for a richer-tasting soup, use chicken or vegetable stock), salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and then turn down to simmer, covered, for 20-30 minutes until squash is soft and soupy yet retains some of its chunky texture.

Chop or tear the kale leaves into small pieces and stir into the soup, cooking for another 5-10 minutes. The kale should be tender and a vibrant darker green. Grate the fresh nutmeg into the soup. Serve the soup garnished with dry-roasted pignoli, pumpkin or squash seeds.

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