Baby, it’s cold outside. And I mean COLD – like single digit temperatures, icy winds, bundle-up-in-your-down-coat-hat-scarf-gloves-and-furry-boots-if-you’re-heading-out, cold. Perfect soup weather. Believe me, I’m not complaining – I love cold weather. In fact, it’s the one thing I really missed about New York when I lived in Southern California. Okay I missed my family and friends too. And rain. And local bagels. And real NY pizza. Though in all their glorious, glutenful goodness I couldn’t eat the bagels and pizza even if I had been here, and now I’m making up words again and getting way off topic. Sorry. Back to the soup.
This wonderful butternut squash soup has a personal story behind it. If you’ve read my About Me page you know that I cook for people with health problems. Some of my clients are cancer patients, and they don’t always make it. I recently lost a dear and wonderful client after an awful battle with cancer, and she passed away less than two weeks before her birthday. I offered to cook the family a special meal on her birthday so they could honor and celebrate her memory, and they came up with a menu that they felt reflected much of what she loved about food. The first thing they requested was a butternut soup – with the inclusion of poblano pepper as a nod to her beloved second home of Santa Fe, New Mexico – so I served this as the starter to the meal. The family loved it so much that I came home and recreated it a few times to be sure I had a solid recipe to share with all of you, and do I ever. Earthy spices, sweet and creamy squash, tart and tangy lime, and cool crema all come together in a perfect bowl of warm and comforting deliciousness that will nourish your body and soul.
Though butternut squash is easy to find pretty much everywhere right now, feel free to substitute a similar winter squash if you don’t like it or happen to have another variety on hand. Kabocha, acorn, carnival, buttercup, Hubbard – all would be perfectly fine substitutes here as long as you use the same weight. Please be careful when cutting winter squash in half – it can be tough to get through and you don’t want the knife to slip.
See how the ends of the squash in the photo are flat? I always slice a thin piece off the top (stem end) and bottom (base) to make both surfaces more stable before I whack through it. Fortunately, cutting through the squash is pretty much the only challenging aspect of this recipe. I realized a long time ago that if you’re going to mash or puree it anyway, there’s no point in cubing the squash before roasting. For this soup you’ll roast the halves intact, then scoop out the soft flesh. Easy peasy, and it saves a lot of prep time.
A quick note: when handling the raw flesh of butternut and other squashes in the Cucurbita moschata family, many people – including me – have a skin reaction called contact dermatitis. It’s not dangerous, but can me mildly uncomfortable – the skin on your hands gets itchy and red, and may even begin to flake or peel. It’s a reaction to a compound in the squash that’s only released when you cut through the flesh, it doesn’t mean you’re allergic to squash, and it won’t make you sick if you eat it. I flipped out the first time this happened to me until I figured out what was going on. Now I just wear disposable gloves when touching the freshly cut surface of raw of winter squash (it won’t happen when you touch the skin before peeling or cutting into the squash or once it’s cooked).
So, once you’ve cut the squash in half, use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and scrape off any stringy fibers that are clinging to the surface of the squash. (Don’t throw out the seeds. You can rinse/clean them, then toss with oil and salt and roast for a delicious, crunchy snack.) Rub the squash with oil or melted butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and set the cut side down on a sheet pan. Roast in your preheated oven until you can pierce through the skin easily with the tip of a knife in the thickest places (it should glide through as effortlessly as it would through room temperature butter).
There’s my squash all roasted and tender, still steaming from the oven. I could happily eat it just like this with nothing but a fork, but today it goes into the soup.
Here’s another shot of the squash so you can see what both sides look like when it’s done.
You’re also going to roast poblano peppers at the same time as the squash, though they won’t require as much time in the oven. This is what you’re looking for when you pull them out – nicely blackened and blistered all over. Now transfer them to a bowl, and cover it with plastic wrap or a plate to let the pepper steam for a while. It makes peeling them much easier.
While the vegetables are roasting you’ll prepare the remaining ingredients in a pot or dutch oven. It’s pretty simple – all you’re doing is sweating aromatics, frying spices, and heating up stock. Even though the soup will be blended at the end, take the time and care to chop the onion relatively finely (small ¼-inch dice is good) and mince the garlic. Smaller pieces give you more exposed surface area, allowing you to cook out the raw flavor more thoroughly. Once the onion is nice and translucent, add a bit more fat and the dry spices, and fry them until fragrant. Then add the garlic and cook out the raw flavor for about 30 seconds.
At this point you can scrape in the cooked squash, add the coconut sugar, salt, pepper, and part of the stock, and simmer it all together for a few minutes. Why only add part of the stock now? Because squash varies in moisture, and you need to adjust the volume of added liquid accordingly. I always buy a 3-pound squash for this recipe, but sometimes it requires a scant 3 cups of stock to achieve the perfect consistency, and sometimes I need to use all 4 cups. You can tell in the photos of the roasted squash from earlier that it was relatively high in moisture, because the squash generated a ton of steam. and a noticeable amount of liquid seeped out during roasting. Since it naturally contains some sugar it caramelized on the sheet pan (that’s always fun to scrub off). There are times when this happens, and others when you have a drier squash that gets pretty browned and crisp on its the surface without exuding any moisture. Those are the occasions when you’ll end up using more stock.
See how mashed up the squash is? I haven’t added any stock to this yet, but I was able to mash it easily with a wooden spoon because this particular squash was so moist and tender. If your squash is drier you may have a chunkier texture, but don’t worry – everything will soften during the simmer. After this I added the 2 ½ cups of stock and remaining seasonings and let it simmer.
Next up, poblano crema. It may sound impressive and exotic, but it’s not difficult at all to make and only requires a few ingredients. If you want to keep this soup vegan/dairy-free, I recommend using coconut-milk yogurt in place of the sour cream (and since it’s not as thick as sour cream you can probably skip the extra liquid used to thin it out). Remember those peppers you left steaming in a bowl? Now you’re going to peel them.
See how the peppers collapsed on themselves and the skins have and started to roll up on their own? It’s the perfect condition for peeling them. Poblano skins are very thin and delicate, so they pull right off. Discard the skins, along with the stem and seeds (and any stringy ribs you find inside). Cut off about a third of one pepper, slice it into ⅛-inch strips, then cut the strips into very small dice. That will be for garnish – refrigerate those little cubes until you serve the soup.
Here’s my poblano garnish in progress. If you keep the size pretty consistent it makes for a lovely presentation with those baby cubes of poblano sprinkled onto the soup.
Now roughly chop the remaining peppers and add them to whatever small chopping or blending appliance you have – a mini-chopper, Nutribullet, etc. I personally use either the cup or chopping container of my immersion blender for this. Add the sour cream and squeeze in the roasted garlic. (Just hold the clove at one end and squeeze, and the creamy roasted garlic will squirt right out of the opposite end. It can be sticky, so I recommend keeping the foil around it when you do this.) Add lime juice, salt, pepper, and buttermilk (or non-dairy alternative), and blend or process until smooth. Taste and adjust your seasoning, then strain the crema through a fine sieve and refrigerate until you serve the soup.
It’s nice to see tiny specks of green in the crema from the poblanos, but I recommend straining it to make sure you remove any larger or unblended bits.
The soup is done simmering on the stove and it probably looks something like this. Now we blend. If you have an immersion blender, use it to puree the soup directly in the pot. Otherwise transfer everything to a countertop blender for this step. Blender containers should never be filled more than ⅔ of the way with hot liquids because they tend to release steam and spatter, so you may have to do this in batches depending on the capacity of your container. Always be very careful when blending hot liquids! Cover the lid with a kitchen towel and hold it in place while the blender is running.
Here’s my pureed soup, which I did with my immersion blender directly in the pot – oh how I love that handy little appliance! Once you’ve blended the soup thoroughly it will be creamy and smooth, but you don’t want it to be suuuper thick (that’s a serious pet peeve of mine). Here’s how to test for proper consistency of pretty much any creamy soup: scoop out a spoonful, hold the spoon several inches above the soup, and drizzle it back in. If the indentations where the drizzle landed don’t disappear, the soup is too thick and you should add a bit more liquid. As I explained earlier, it will depend on how much moisture was in the squash to begin with. Once you’ve got it where you want it, if the soup has cooled down a lot, reheat it in the pot for a few minutes before serving (or if you’re not using it immediately transfer it to containers and refrigerate or freeze it).
Your work here is done. To serve the soup, ladle it into bowls, drizzle with poblano crema, sprinkle on the diced poblano, toasted pepitas, reserved lime zest and a few cilantro leaves, and dig in.
Liz, this one’s for you.
- One 3-lb butternut squash (or equivalent), halved and seeded
- 25-30 ml (5-6 teaspoons) olive oil or melted butter, divided
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 whole, unpeeled garlic cloves
- 2 small (2 ½ ounces each) poblano peppers, rinsed and dried
- 67 grams (½ cup) diced or relatively finely chopped yellow onion
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ⅛ teaspoon dried ancho powder (may substitute cayenne)
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon) coconut sugar or brown sugar
- 24-32 ounces (3-4 cups) low sodium vegetable or chicken stock, divided
- 4 ounces (½ cup) sour cream or dairy-free alternative
- Juice of 1-2 limes (15 ml/1 tablespoon total), zest reserved for garnish
- 10-15 ml (2-3 teaspoons) buttermilk or alternative
- Cilantro leaves and toasted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds) for garnish
- Preheat oven to 450 and oil one large and one small rimmed baking sheet (or line with parchment paper).
- Roast the squash, peppers and garlic: Rub the cut side of each half of squash with just enough olive oil to lightly coat the surface (½ teaspoon on each half for large squash). Rub the oil over the inside of the squash and season with a generous sprinkle of salt and a couple of turns of black pepper. Turn the squash cut-side down on the pan. Place the poblanos on the second sheet pan, and wrap the unpeeled garlic cloves tightly in a piece of foil. Transfer both pans to the oven and set the wrapped garlic directly on one of the oven racks (wherever there’s an easily accessible spot).
- Roast the poblanos for 10-15 minutes, turning occasionally, until nicely charred on all sides. Remove them from oven and transfer them to a heat-proof bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plate and let the peppers steam while you proceed with the soup base. Check on the garlic at this point - if it’s soft, remove it from the oven to cool. If it still feels very firm leave it in to continue roasting with the squash.
- The squash will stay in the oven to roast for about 35-40 minutes (less for small squash) until tender and completely cooked through. When checking the squash, the tip of a knife should slide through the skin into the thickest part of the squash like it would through softened butter. Set the squash and garlic cloves aside to cool.
- While the vegetables are roasting, prepare the soup base: In a 3-quart (or larger) stock pot or dutch oven, warm 2 teaspoons oil or butter over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook for 4-5 minutes until softened and translucent, stirring frequently. Don’t brown the onion. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil or butter to the pot along with the ground coriander, ground cumin, chili powder, smoked paprika, and ancho powder or cayenne. Fry the spices with the onion for 1 minutes, stirring frequently, until toasted and fragrant. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. If the squash is still in the oven or out but too hot to handle yet, move the pot off the heat until ready to proceed.
- Scoop all the tender flesh of the squash out of the skin and add it directly to the pot (discard the skin). Add the coconut or brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, several grinds of pepper, and 20 ounces (2 ½ cups) of stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon lime juice, remove the pot from the heat and let cool a bit while you make the crema.
- Make the poblano crema: Rub the peel off the peppers and discard along with the stem. Slice the peppers open, and remove and discard the seeds and any stringy ribs. Cut half of one pepper into very small dice (⅛ inch) for garnish, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Roughly chop remaining peppers and add to a small food processor, blender, or the cup of an immersion blender along with the sour cream. Squeeze in the roasted garlic, add ½ teaspoon lime juice, a pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper and 2 teaspoons buttermilk or alternative, and blend or process until smooth. Taste for seasoning, add more salt, pepper and/or lime juice if desired, and add the remaining teaspoon buttermilk if you want a thinner crema. Strain though a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, container or squeeze bottle. Cover and chill until ready to use.
- Finish the soup: If you have an immersion blender you can puree the soup directly in the pot. If not, transfer the contents of the pot to the container of a blender, secure the lid, and cover the lid with a kitchen towel (if the contents are still very hot this will prevent steam from escaping and burning you). Hold the towel in place and turn on the blender, starting at low speed. Increase speed gradually to high and puree the soup until smooth. CAREFULLY remove the lid and check the thickness of the soup, blending in additional stock in ¼ cup increments until you achieve the desired consistency. Taste and season with additional salt, pepper and/or lime juice if desired. Return soup to pot and heat through before serving, or transfer to containers and refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 4 months.
- Serve: Ladle soup into bowls, drizzle with poblano crema, and sprinkle with reserved diced poblano, toasted pepitas, lime zest and cilantro.