Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spicy Pumpkin Soup with Bacon Croutons

I have been fortunate that the lives of most of my friends and family were not upset by Hurricane Sandy. Even my parents' beach house on a New Jersey barrier island somehow pulled through okay, sitting an extra 20 inches off the ground past the top of the flood water. I do have some friends who went without power for more than a week, like the couple who run a food truck business out of their building in Red Hook. Luckily their commercial kitchen space and apartment above were fine, well as their food truck parked in Gowanus. But their basement flooded to the ceiling, and Evan spent an afternoon helping them clean while they decided what of their belongings could be salvaged and what had to be tossed.

Knowing we had a lamb roast in our freezer, we invited them over for a home cooked meal. There have been so many post-Sandy volunteer opportunities that I haven't taken part in. It's been heartening to see how New Yorkers have stepped up to take care of each other, but honestly, I am not personally a manual labor or talk to strangers kind of person. Cooking a meal for friends, however, I could do.


But this is not about the lamb - this is about the pumpkin soup we served. It feels homey and warming, perfect for this time of year when we are easing into winter, with some hardships along the way. It's a riff off a similar soup from Simply Recipes, scaled back in serving size. I originally left out the sugar, but realized it was a little too bland at the first taste. After adding maple syrup and more salt, it went straight to amazing, especially with a sprinkling of bacon bits and croutons. The hint of sweetness in the soup balances the heat of all the spices. Don't worry about sticking to the spices listed in the ingredients - throw in whatever spices you have in your cabinet that you think might be fun.

My croutons were made from stale multigrain flatbread that resulted from a failed attempt on my part to make a decent loaf of bread. My guests enjoyed their hearty and grainy crunch, but you could use any day old or stale bread. While we were eating, I imagined that fried sage would really put it over the top, and included that as a suggestion below. 

The entirety of the steps below may look daunting, but it actually feels like a piece of cake if you make the bacon and roast pumpkin the day before like I did. Then all you have to do is pull things out of the fridge to combine them in a pot, and prepare the croutons while the soup is simmering.
This time of year, Evolutionary Organics Farm has a wealth of beautifully funny looking squashes and pumpkins at their stand at the Grand Army Greenmarket. This variety is Musquee de Provence, also known as Fairytale, an heirloom pumpkin from France that  packs a lot of flesh and is well flavored for soups and pies. I got six cups of roasted puree out of this beauty, as I work on roasting and hoarding a stash of pureed pumpkin in my freezer to last me through a winter of baking. Really, though, any pumpkin or squash will work in this recipe.
Spicy Pumpkin Soup with Bacon Croutons
1 tbsp bacon fat or olive oil
1 small onion
4 cups vegetable stock 
4 cups pureed roasted pumpkin or squash
1/2 tsp curry
1/2 tsp tumeric 
1/2 tsp cumin 
1/2 tsp coriander 
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper 
1/8 tsp cayenne 
1 tsp salt 
1 cup milk 
1/4 cup maple syrup 
6 strips of bacon (1 strip per serving)
few slices of slightly stale bread
handful of fresh sage (optional)

To roast the pumpkin: 
Preheat the oven to 450. Leaving the skin on the pumpkin, slice it in half. Scoop out the seeds and set them aside (you can roast them into a snack while the pumpkin is cooking). Place each half of pumpkin flesh side down in a large baking dish. Fill the dish with about a half inch of water. Stick it in the oven for about 40-60 minutes, depending on the size. It's done when the skin has softened and the flesh can be easily mashed all the way through with a fork. Remove it from the oven. Once it has cooled off, use a fork to scoop out the roasted pumpkin flesh. If you like, use an immersion blender to puree the somewhat stringy flesh into creamy puree. Freeze extra puree in half or full cup portions for baking.

To prepare the soup:
Warm a medium size pot and coat the bottom with bacon fat (or olive oil). Dice one small onion and sautee until softened. Add the stock, pumpkin, and spices and stir to thoroughly combine. Turn the heat to high and cover until it comes to a boil. Uncover, reduce heat and let it simmer for about 15 minutes.  Turn off the heat and use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth (or wait for it too cool and transfer to a food processor or blender). Stir in milk and maple syrup. Add more salt to taste.

To prepare bacon croutons :
Using fresh bacon: Slice slightly stale bread into half inch cubes. Rinse sage leaves and slice roughly in half or thirds. Fry one strip of bacon per serving. Add bread cubes to the pan, and toward the end, add the sage as well, making sure both bread and sage are coated in bacon fat and cooked until slightly crispy. Let it all drain and cool on paper towels before dicing the bacon into bits. 

Using leftover bacon: Chop cold bacon into small bits. On a small tray, toss the bread cubes with a little olive oil and salt and then scatter bacon bits and fresh sage around the cubes. Toast in the toaster oven for about ten minutes.

Ladle soup into a bowl and top with a sprinkling of the bacon-sage crouton mix. Makes about 6 servings.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Guest Post: Hunting My Own Meat

While New York gets back on its feet and prepares to return to the normalcy of going back to work, my sister Lisa is here to share a guest post from Oregon about fulfilling her lifelong dream to learn to hunt (which I never knew she had).

A long, long time ago, when I was a child on a goat farm, I became a vegetarian. My reasons: it was environmentally irresponsible, wasteful, and often cruel to animals. My parents weren’t into it, but they stopped trying to feed me meat after a month or so. I never thought it was wrong to kill animals -- I knew as a human that it was a natural activity. Hunting was a controversial and extremely cultural issue in southern New York. Deer are overpopulated because they no longer have any natural predators besides humans. And I only knew of one person in the whole town (of 30,000 people) who hunted. Hunting was portrayed as something that hillbillies do, it was uncivilized and gross. I never prescribed to that shitty bias. I remember taking a poll in high school once where I asked people two questions: 1) Do you think hunting is wrong or cruel? and 2) Are you a vegetarian. 0% of my 40 person study group were vegetarians but about 50% said they were against hunting. Interesting results!

So, basically, I could not wait until the day that I actually was able to learn to hunt my food, to kill it and prepare it myself, to have the most cruelty-free and sustainable meat.

After graduate school in New York City, I moved to the high desert of Eastern Oregon, and have slowly begun to ease my way into the activities that are so common and normal here: hunting and fishing.

Last June I caught my first trout. I went on my first deer hunt a few weeks ago, with my boyfriend and his family who are very experienced and intelligent hunters. I learned gun safety, hunting strategy, and the excitement and beauty of a hunting trip. We hunted in the northeastern corner of Oregon where the red sunrises and sunsets flowed through the geometry of 400 foot deep canyons. And I shot a deer through the heart with one shot (I guess the hand-eye coordination from softball pitching lessons really paid off, mom!). No suffering, instant predation. Gutting the deer felt felt much more natural than I thought it would. It was like dissecting an animal in biology class, except with the proud knowledge that we were all going to share several great meals afterward.

Duck hunting is trickier than I thought. I hunted for ducks in a wildlife area in a basin lake from 7-11am, and then again from 1-4pm, my whole body covered with varying layers of camouflage except for my eyes (ducks can see color and understand what a face is). It was very cold, then it was very hot, and we only saw about two ducks flying the whole day.

My boyfriend's family and I are going duck hunting Thanksgiving morning, to bring home some fresh duck, and maybe geese, to cook as our Thanksgiving meal. I'm glad that I get to participate in such a thankful and sustainable tradition.

The only thing left is to get Julia to hunt with me when she comes out to Oregon at some point (which is totally going to happen).

Hmmm, I don't know about that. While I support the act of hunting your own meat for the same reasons that Lisa does, I'm personally not interested in taking part in it, at least for now. Although, I do think it would be a useful survival skill if we see apocalyptic environmental and economic changes during our lifetime. What about you - would you ever go hunting?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Day in My Life

I'm over at the Green Phone Booth today, where I'll now be blogging every so often. To introduce myself to the booth, I've shared a typical day in my life, so go check it out if you've ever wondered how I spend my days.

Although, this week has been anything but typical. Hurricane Sandy hit New York hard. I personally felt thankful to be unaffected and thankful for all of our modern infrastructure and conveniences, which meant I was snug in my apartment on high ground without even losing power, able to monitor the news via internet throughout the storm. For me, the hurricane has meant days of getting to just relax, cook good food and do some work remotely at home, while we wait for power to be restored to lower Manhattan where my office is located, and for the subway stations connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan to be pumped clear of flooding. Selfishly, the forced relaxation that comes with severe weather is a welcome relief from my busy life. I am grateful for this, knowing that for others, it has meant days of darkness without power. Given that subway service has already been partially restored and that Manhattan's power will likely be restored by Saturday, I think we can be optimistic about our city's path to recovery.