The Comforts of Home

If I were to tell you I miss New England winters, you would think I had completely lost my mind, or you would know I was lying.

The bitter, cold, dark, relentless winters were the biggest reason Mark and I moved to the Southwest.

Days and weeks - nay, months! - of snow, sleet, wind and bone-chilling rains weren't my thing any longer. (True, there was a time I found it invigorating. What was I thinking?)

I do miss our friends every day. I also miss some very specific things: the sweet, tender lobsters that were available fresh from the sea, and the intoxicating fragrance of the lilacs hanging in the soft air of late May. Of course, those weren't part of winter were they?

Foodwise, I miss the need for comfort food. Here, in Tucson, the season for rich soups, stews and slow-roasted meats lasts but a few weeks. Sometimes, it is only a few days here and there.

It is said that President Nixon turned on his air-conditioning even in summer so he could light a fire in the fireplace (while listening to Mantovani, of course); I haven't gotten that needy yet, but it has crossed my mind.

After spending most of my life in areas that were just this side of arctic, I have amassed quite the collection of comfort food recipes, many of which came from my mother.

While at the farmers market last weekend, under a clear blue sky with temperatures hovering around 70°F (21°C), I saw a butternut squash and had a pang of nostalgia for my mother's Autumn Harvest Bisque.

I pretty much knew the ingredient list by heart - some things you just don't forget. A few ingredients weren't available, and I wasn't in the mood to run from one grocer to another. I got what I could, and decided to make the recipe my own.

My impromptu version is much less caloric than my mother's, and oddly creamier without using cream (as she did). Yes, there is still a decent amount of butter involved in a large batch, but that comes to only about a half tablespoon per serving.

All in all, this is a very healthy soup - and a hearty one. And comforting. I think Mom would approve.

~ David

Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque

1 medium butternut squash – about 1 1/2 pounds
cooking spray
6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 large white onion, chopped
2 leeks, white and light green parts, halved lengthwise and sliced
2 large tart cooking apples, cored, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 small turnip, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
6 sage leaves, chopped (about 1 teaspoon)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
1/4 cup flour
2 cups lowfat milk (I used 1%)
freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).

Cut squash in half lengthwise; scoop out and discard seeds and stringy parts. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray foil with cooking spray. Place the squash halves, cut side down, onto the foil. Roast for 45-60 minutes, until squash is very tender when pierced with a fork or knifepoint. Let cool.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large soup kettle over medium heat. Add chopped onions and sliced leeks, and cook for 5-10 minutes until onions are clear and soft. Increase heat to medium-high, and add apples, carrots and turnip. Sauté for a minute or two, then add broth. Scoop out the flesh from the squash and add it to the kettle. Stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer the soup for 30 minutes.

Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan. Add the rosemary, sage, nutmeg and five spice powder; cook for 1 minute or so, or until fragrant. Add the flour, and stir. Let cook for 2-3 minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour. Add the milk and whisk to incorporate. Add this mixture to the soup kettle, season well with salt and pepper, and cook for 10-15 minutes, until thickened. Let cool 15 minutes.

Purée soup in four batches in a blender; pour into a clean pot and reheat. Serve with a crusty bread and salad.

Makes 10-12 servings.

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