Squash soup (no recipe)

I had such intentions of hopping back on the horse and being seasonal and bringing you something appropriately pumpkin-ed, and then an impromptu afternoon outing turned into dinner with friends, (involving, it’s worth noting, easily the best Caesar dressing I’ve ever made, slightly over-salted croutons, and the complete destruction of my microplane grater. My first reaction was, “what a cheap thing! Who gave us this for our wedding anyway…. Oh. Twelve years ago. I guess that’s fair) and suddenly mixing, baking, slicing, baking again (three guesses about what I intended?!) seemed much less important.

So instead I want to talk about soup. But to get there, first I have to talk about A. Two weekends ago, N. and I went to the wedding of one of our grad school friends, an amazing woman we’ve remained quite close to despite only sharing two academic years with her. She came back to Oregon for our graduation, she roomed with us at a wedding only now taking a cautious, slight backseat to hers, she sees N. almost every year at a conference I know has become his favorite in part because he gets to see her (among other amazing friends and scholars). There aren’t many people I would fly to Texas for and party like a college student in the middle of the semester, but she’s one of them. And her new husband is pretty great too.

The wedding dinner was entirely vegetarian, which is a hard sell in the middle of Texas. But her caterers pulled it off well, and the easy star of the whole shebang was the squash soup. I’ve had – and made – plenty of squash-based soups, and I am (almost) always slightly disappointed by them. They are so often either a barely thinned puree, one-note and overwhelmed by butternut, or so diluted by broth or cream they don’t taste of much at all. Even my own most recent take, which was tasty, left something to be desired.

This one, though, was outrageously delicious. I don’t know what sort of squash they used – whether it was summer, winter, or both – but it was creamy without being overwhelming, and bright and interesting enough to hold my interest for the entire bowl. It didn’t need any garnishes, it didn’t split or get greasy as it cooled, and had I been less invested in getting on with the dancing, I could easily have gone back for seconds. I’ve already put in a request to the catering company to share, if not the recipe, perhaps an ingredient secret or two.

So to close, since I’ve got soup on the brain, what’s the best squash-based soup you’ve ever had? Did you make it, or did someone else? What made it amazing? Tell me everything…

Reflections

Well, we are back. After two and a half weeks roaming France and Italy, we returned with tired feet, dazzled eyes, full minds, and happy stomachs. And since there’s no way, since our flight landed on Friday and we’ve barely unpacked yet (though I’ve made a pretty good start catching up on the TV I’ve recorded – the Colosseum out of gingerbread? Did you see it? I WAS IN THE REAL ONE A WEEK AGO! – ahem), that I’m going to have a recipe for you today, I thought instead I’d share a few food-based reflections and revelations from our trip.

In no particular order:

Prosciutto and butter sandwiches are really, really good. Especially when they are on fresh, high-quality bread. I know, prosciutto is already fatty. But that fat, combined with the saltiness of the meat and the sweet, creamy butter, is perfection. I thought briefly about the merits of adding something fresh, like arugula or sliced cucumber, but it wouldn’t be right to tangle with perfection. If you must, have a side salad instead.

French and Italian croissants are quite different. Both are delicious and rich and buttery, but they are clearly distinct. French croissants are devastatingly flaky and crisp on the outside, with delicate, soft-but-separate layers inside. Sometimes they contain chocolate, but those are a different shape – the classic crescent croissant wrap is just for the plain and original. Italian croissants, on the other hand, often have fillings. Apricot is pretty common, and I had one with pistachio cream inside that I’m still thinking about. The lurid green oozing out was a bit of a shock at first, but it was a stellar flavor. To that end, Italian croissants tend to run a bit sweeter than their French counterparts, and they are breadier inside – more like brioche or challah. The layers are still there, but they aren’t as distinct. Sometimes the exterior is swept with a sweet glaze, which renders a less shattering bite.

Rosé is just the best. I already knew this, but when you can sit down at any French café, say “rosé, s’il vous plait,” and wind up with a moderate-to-great glass of wine, often for less than 5 euros, it gets even greater.

Though my go-to remains rosé, my new favorite summer cocktail is an Aperol spritz. Everywhere we went in Italy, from lunchtime on I saw people sipping on large, bright, almost salmon-colored cocktails with half-slices of orange sunk inside. I finally figured out this was an Aperol spritz, a combination of Aperol, an herb-infused Italian aperitif, prosecco, and soda water. Sometimes the spritz is made with Campari instead, which is a bit more bitter than Aperol. It’s intensely refreshing, not terribly alcoholic, and pairs well with every savory snack I can think of.

This is really N.’s revelation more than mine, but tarte aux citron is an amazing dessert. More specifically, the tarte aux citron with passionfruit sorbet and lemon gel he allowed me to share at a bistro in Arles is an amazing dessert. I read about this spot, a more affordable kind of sister to the playground restaurant of one of France’s very well known chefs. Since we were staying in Arles, I knew I wanted that to be our splurge dinner, and when the chef himself very kindly talked the seating manager into giving us a table (what? Get a reservation? It didn’t even occur to us), we were in for a lovely dining experience. N. concluded his meal with this tarte, which arrived as a wide slice of lemon curd and piped, perfectly toasted meringue atop a crumbly just-sweet crust, accompanied by a perfect quenelle of intensely flavored sorbet and mouth-puckering dots of lemon gel. I’m now charged with recreating at least the pastry portion. More on that as developments arise, I suspect…

In summertime in Italy, “grilled vegetables” on anything, from sandwich to pasta, means you are going to get zucchini and eggplant.

Italian food is just really… simple. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just good, fresh ingredients, cooked well, and that’s that. With a few exceptions for aesthetic appeal, there isn’t a tremendous amount of manipulation to the ingredients, and at least in what we wound up ordering, there aren’t that many of them in any one dish. This results in pure flavors: you can taste almost everything the cook used.

Polpo. Or poulpe, depending on which country you’re in. This is my new favorite seafood. It might be my new favorite food. I’ve eaten octopus before – in fact, it’s one of the foods that made me realize even as a child that I was not a picky eater. But I haven’t had it very often, and where it is served in the U.S. it tends to be out of our typical restaurant price range. It’s a difficult protein to cook, since it can take on the texture of rubber bands if it isn’t cooked correctly. We were fortunate enough to have octopus cooked perfectly in two meals. Once was at that French bistro I mentioned above, when lovely chunks of the stuff were included in my squid ink pasta. The other, and the one that really converted me, was an appetizer we shared on our last night in Venice. The menu description was so spare we didn’t know what to expect: “octopus, potato, tomato, onion.” What we got was a gorgeous plate of food including potato puree well doctored with lemon, fresh, bright tomato sauce, just-burst cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled slips of onion, and two perfect, tender, meaty fingers of octopus that, to me, were reminiscent of nothing more than roast chicken. And I mean that in a good way. So now I’m determined to learn how to cook octopus. Perhaps not for an exact restaurant recreation, but because this heretofore underappreciated meat needs to cross our table much, much more often.

 

Photos!

No new post today, I’m afraid; grading and home owner duties took over my weekend. But I did manage to do a little photo editing, so what I can offer is an update to last week’s waffles: now with images! Here’s one to whet your appetite. Scroll on down and have a look-see at the rest, if you’re into it.

Unintentional upside down cake

Well, I had a lovely post for you to get me back into the swing of things. I’d written up a recipe, cleverly combining memories of an exceptional coffeecake from the cafe at the Getty Villa with my current coffee obsession (a “dirty chai,” if you’re wondering). I dutifully whisked the batter, I drizzled a mocha swirl filling, I baked, and then…

While extricating it from the bundt pan, I dropped it. Upside down. Onto my laptop.

2016 Food Blog May-0676Luckily the laptop is fine; I had the presence of mind to move it before I reached for my camera. And though the cake itself tastes great, there was a structural issue in addition to my own clumsiness that makes it not ready to share with you yet.

What’s that line from The Great Gatsby? “And so we beat on, boats against the current,  borne back ceaselessly into a time before we dropped a cake on the table like an idiot”?

I’ll check in with you next week, friends, if I can keep my food right side up.