OK. I’ll cut to the chase. This is soup – but oh, what soup it is. The flavours do a dance of joy on your tongue and the texture is the smoothest, sleekest thing in the world.
This recipe counts as one of what I call my 3am inspirations. These take many forms and have many contexts: work, food, writing, problems, the lot. You know how it goes: either you’re not yet asleep or you are asleep and then wake up with a start; the answer staring you in the face. This is kind of how it was with this recipe and the flavour combination that makes it so special.
My love affair with butternut squash got off to a rather unthrilling start, followed by years in the wilderness. I first came across it when I was but a young thing, at a party I didn’t want to be at with a person, who though lovely, was not someone I wanted to be with. The host with the most had roasted sections of squash and was enthusiastically trying to persuade me to get stuck in. This lady was, as they say, not for turning. With a peculiar relationship with food still in its last vestiges of hangover, I politely declined and took myself off to bed. Oh dear.
It wasn’t until some years later when I was successfully persuaded that butternut squash was an ‘even nicer version of pumpkin’ (mum’s truly awesome pumpkin pie recipe coming soon) that I was to try it again. We had by this point moved out to the sticks and were engaged in much cooking and domestic bliss. Within weeks of arriving in the village, my brownies were famous amongst the good ladies of the WI and I grew fat and contented on the moutains of wonderful home cooking being generated by Phil. With the 3am inspiration fresh in my mind, I began to experiment (fearful at first of quantities; quite terrified of chillis), with this particular version of the everyday alchemy that is the making of food. The first results were a surprise success, with very little refinement needed thereafter.
This is the first time I’ve shared this recipe. For almost six years I’ve been making it on a fairly regular basis and have always been coy about laying bare the truth. Its special place in my heart is further enhanced by the fact that its possibly the only thing I’ve ever cooked that has generated a look of genuine pleasure on the face of my father. I made it as the starter at an extended family gathering (Phil was on main course: belly pork I think) in industrial quantities, destroying the hand-blender in the process. I’m afraid I’m one of those poor saps for whom the pleasing of my parents is still the pinnacle of my aspirations, even at my advancing years. One day I’ll grow up. Or not.
To square the circle, I should probably confess that this did originally start out as plan oul’ soup, once upon a time. The veloute-ing of it all (which really does make a difference) came as a result of lunch out in Leeds with lovely Keely where I had a spiced cauliflower veloute as a starter. Pretentious? Moi? Perhaps so, but it was – to mix my metaphors – the icing on the cake.
- Just pre-heat the oven to about 190C and you’re ready to go
- 1 decent sized squash. It doesn’t have to be giant, but don’t skimp. If possible, get the super-sweet variety, the name of which escapes me. A greengrocer – or Waitrose – will know.
- 1 medium onion
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- Sea salt
- 1 tin coconut milk
- 2/3 stem of lemon grass
- 1/2 a medium hot red chili pepper (these are the plumpish ones that tend to come in little bags of 3 in the supermarket)
- a good lump of root ginger, perhaps thumb-sized
- Creme fraiche to serve – you can leave this out for vegans
- boiled water from the kettle
- Begin by preparing your squash. With a potato peeler, remove all the skin, then chop into chunky pieces, making sure you completely remove all the seeds and stringy bits from inside the bulbous end.
- Toss in a little olive oil – not too much – and spread out on a silicone sheet or in a roasting tray. Place in your pre-heated oven and don’t forget about it. You could even prepare this in advance. It’s done when the pieces have started to caramelise and crisp up at the edges. A few black bits are fine.
- Meanwhile, put a generous slug of olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Chop your onion and add this to the pan. Soften over heat until the onion becomes translucent.
- As your onion is cooking, chop your spices – the garlic, chili, ginger and lemon grass. They need to be in smallish pieces, but don’t worry too much as it all gets blitzed later on.
- When your onion is nice and soft, add all the spices, with some sea salt and stir well. Keep the heat gentle at this stage – you don’t want the spices to burn.
- Add the coconut milk. This will immediately boil and start to create a thick soup. If you prefer a less coconutty flavour, use only part of the tin. I used between 1/2 and 1 tin, depending on my mood and the size of squash. If you’re making a job lot, you can just scale up accordingly.
- Add your pieces of roasted squash to this mixture. Please don’t be tempted to skip the roasting part. This is vital for releasing the sugars and rich flavours from the vegetable. It won’t be right otherwise.
- Stir well and top up with boiled water. Bring the whole mixture to the boil, stirring it as you go, then reduce the heat and leave to simmer for a while. Keep an eye on it. If it gets too thick and gloopy, just add more water. If you add too much, keep it on the heat to reduce.
- After about 30 minutes, remove the mixture from the heat. Then, when cool enough, use a hand blender (ideally) to blitz the mixture. I prefer to do it this way as it avoids transferring everything back and forth. If you’re not fussed, an upright blender or food processor is fine.
- Now that everything is mixed, have a taste. You may well find you need to add more salt and its fine to do it at this stage. Just crumble it in and keep on tasting till you’re happy.
- Once the taste is as you wish, it’s veloute time! Place a large sieve over a large mixing bowl and gently pour the soup into the sieve. Keep on stirring it until everything has passed through the sieve and you just have some sticky fibres left. These can be discarded.
- What you will be left with is the smoothest, most velvety mixture you can imagine. As its vegan, it keeps well in the fridge for a few days and you can simply reheat and serve as you wish.
- I like to serve mine with a good dollop of creme fraiche as a garnish. In time-honoured tradition, it balances the heat of the chili perfectly. Look for creme fraiche d’isigny in the shops. Tesco’s finest is this kind and Waitrose do a version too. It has a higher fat content than most and the balance of creaminess and piquance is just perfect.
Top Tip: Store your thai spices (chili, ginger and lemongrass) in an airtight contained in the freezer. They keep for ages and in their frozen form are quick and easy to chop, particularly the lemongrass. Try it and see!