Photo by Maren Caruso from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian (Weldon Owen)
I resisted including a recipe for winter squash soup in The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy. It seemed to me that there were already more than enough to go around, and one of my aims for the book was to shine a light on lesser known recipes, such as Minestra di Ceci e di Castagne (Chickpea and Chestnut Soup) and Zuppa al Vino Bianco (White Wine Soup).
Also, winter squash soup didn’t strike me as particularly Italian.
On this last point I was wrong, and I eventually realized that my erroneous impression came from the fact that most of the time I had spent in Italy growing up was in summer, when, of course, winter squash is not in season. None other than Pellegrino Artusi, Italy’s revered 19th Century authority on gastronomy, included a recipe for Zuppa di Zucca Gialla (Yellow Squash Soup) in his famous book, La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene. (My Italian mother owns a decades-old copy in Italian; I have an excellent translation by Kyle M. Phillips III, titled The Art of Eating Well (Random House, 1996).
Artusi’s recipe is as simple as they come: slices of winter squash simmered in broth until tender and then pressed through a sieve. The pulp is then added to broth that has been thickened with a roux; the creamy soup is ladled over croutons and served with grated Parmigiano cheese.
There are, as you know, countless other recipes for winter squash soup, mostly featuring butternut squash, in print and online. Still, at cooking demonstrations and book signings, people wanted to know whether my book contained a recipe—not everyone, but enough to make me second guess my decision to leave it out.
Why is winter squash soup so popular? I suppose the simplest answer is that it is good–creamy, and both sweet and savory, with a golden color that is in perfect synchronicity with the season. But it’s more than that, I suspect. There is something appealing about the familiarity of this soup; it requires no special technique or ingredient, which is a blessing at a time of year when chaos is always threatening to knock down the door.
Last year, when I was working on Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian, I thought it would be a good idea to make amends for my previous omission. I wanted to make a soup that was simple, but different from Artusi’s and from other versions. I turned to one of my favorite workhorse vegetables—the carrot—which, when roasted and puréed together with squash, gave the soup an even more vibrant color and added its own earthy sweetness.
My original recipe in WS Rustic Italian calls for butternut squash, which has a fairly thin, easy-to-peel rind and can be cut into chunks for roasting without too much effort. But when I made the soup last week I used this beauty, which I found at my local farmers’ market:
It’s called a bon bon squash, and with good reason: its flesh, when roasted, is sweet sweet sweet. And smooth. It looks a bit like a cross between a buttercup squash (another squat, green winter squash that is a favorite of mine) and a turban squash. Its rind is tough, which makes it harder to peel than the ubiquitous butternut squash. However, instead of peeling and chunking it raw, you can simply cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast it (cut-side-down) on a rimmed baking sheet until it is completely soft, then spoon out the flesh.
If you look closely at the image at the top of this post, you will see that the croutons that garnish the soup are not made of bread. They are pancetta croutons and they are every bit as delicious as they sound—fat little cubes of pancetta pan-fried until they are crispy. Pure, salty, spicy, piggy heaven. And oh so good scattered over the top of this sweet golden soup. I’ll be making this soup as a first course for Thanksgiving dinner. Won’t you join me?
(from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian (2011 Weldon Owen)
You can use any good variety of winter squash---those with sweet, smooth flesh, such as butternut, buttercup, bon bon, and kabocha are among my favorites. Look for them at farmers' market.
- 1 1/2 pounds butternut squash (see headnote), peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
- 2 yellow onions, cut into chunks
- 3 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 4 fresh thyme sprigs
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 4 cups chicken broth, plus more for thinning the soup
- 1 batch pancetta croutons, made with 6 ounces pancetta cut into 3/4-inch dice
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. In a roasting pan, combine the squash, carrots, onions, garlic, thyme, basil, and parsley. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and a grinding of pepper. Drizzle the olive oil over the vegetables and toss to coat. Roast, stirring every 15 minutes, until tender and browned in spots, about 45 minutes.
Remove the vegetables from the oven and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the vegetables to a soup pot and add 4 cups of the broth. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. Alternately, transfer to a stand blender, purée the soup with the broth in two batches, and return to the pot.
Add more broth to thin the soup to the desired consistency. Place over medium-low heat and cook until warmed through, about 10 minutes.
While the soup is warming, make the pancetta croutons. Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with a few of the pancetta croutons, drizzle with a few drops of olive oil, and serve.
Wine suggestion: A crisp white such as Soave Classico