Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trader Joe's Butternut Squash Soup

For most people, the idiom "salad days" denotes a carefree period of life, typically during one's youth. For me, it has been redefined as "soup days," the long weekend I just had before having to return to work after a state-imposed furlough Friday. I brown bag it pretty regularly, so it stands to reason that I should create my own concoctions to take to the office. Fortunately, Trader Joe's offers several soups that transcend the limitations of the typical canned variety available at most supermarkets. These are very flavorful and can be enjoyed either on their own or as a base for new creations by hurried gourmets like myself.

Squash is a harbinger of fall on the veggie front. I decided to embellish TJ's Butternut Squash Soup with fried sage leaves. I remembered an impressive appetizer I had once of fried sage leaves that were served like musky green snack chips. I also would add sauteed onions and a dash of cumin to the ready-made soup.

I found a simple recipe for the sage leaves on the internet and proceeded to dredge a whole package of sage leaves in a bit of flour. I put about a quarter of a cup of olive oil in a skillet and when it was hot, quickly tossed in the dusted leaves.

The kitchen smelled like I was frying doughnuts laced with marijuana. Not that I ever have, but I imagined that the herby, starchy odor was what it would smell like. My nephews who were supposed to be going to bed ambled out to the kitchen.

Seiji said, "Something smells funny."

His younger brother Kenzo said, "Something smells good."

I predict that in about ten years, this scene will play itself out again, concerning the above mentioned substance, and probably without benefit of it being encased in fried pastry. Kenzo has the family's unanimous vote as "Most Likely To Fill-in-the-Blank."

Suddenly, they both said, "I'm hungry!" even though they never eat at 9:30 at night, proving once again that aroma is a stronger stimulant than actual taste. My brother-in-law herded them away for storytime before bed and I finished frying the sage.

My sister Jolene came home from the market and said, "It smells like Thanksgiving!"

I blotted the excess oil off the sage leaves with paper towels and ate one skeptically. It tasted of flour and very "green," but had that crispy texture I remembered. I eyed them critically started to prepare the onions. Jolene and I have decided that if you ever have to cut up an onion, that means you are "really cooking."

This feeling of accomplishment was diminished only slightly when I wantonly squirted half the carton of ready-made soup into my Ziploc container. I considered its caramel-colored surface, then sprinkled three spoonfuls of onion over it. I arranged five fried sage leaves on it. They lay there suspended like paper blooms in a Matisse collage, and I imagined their herbal goodness infusing itself into my soup while being radiated in the office microwave.

The next day at about 11:30, I heated up the soup. In the air conditioned void of the office, it did indeed smell like Thanksgiving! I started to stir it about and eat when my intern showed up. We got into a discussion about a possible story idea he had and then we went in and pitched it to my boss. Then I walked him down to third floor and set him up in our empty office with a computer after introducing him to some colleagues that he would be photographing at an event the next day.

When I got back to my desk, the odiferous creation was lukewarm and I had to heat it up again. Then another interruption occurred and distracted, I started to answered a couple of emails. It's hard to type and eat with a spoon. I had to heat the soup up again. But I didn't mind.

I've learned after telling people about my blog that soup is a universal good, the ultimate in home cooking and comfort food. There's a reason that there is a series of books called "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Except in my case, I'd rather have the soup.

My friend Alice has invited me to her mother's house for the New Year, where she and her brother will be taught the family menudo recipe. My mother has been threatening my sisters and I with the tutorial for lugao, a Filipino dish that is not really a soup, but a porridge made of rice, chicken and generous amounts of ginger.

It's almost as if our parents are passing a torch of culinary importance, of family tradition and memories of a culture that we experienced only vicariously as the American-born offspring of parents who decided to leave the lands of their birth and make this country their home. In many cases, food is the only thing we learned about from our parents' ethnicity.

The recipe for a childhood favorite - no matter its origin - is something one learns with some apprehension, probably because it marks the end of one's youth. Suddenly, you are charged with taking responsibility for something that only the "grownups" knew about. But deep down, you are grateful, even proud of your newly bestowed knowledge. It means that life goes on.

A co-worker who is our resident authority on gourmet cuisine liked my idea for a soup blog. He told me about how he makes chicken soup from scratch by boiling a chicken and "layering" flavors by reducing the broth, adding butter, onions, garlic, and other ingredients. He also told me that apple schnapps is the thing to add to butternut squash soup.

If I could give my nephews - who most assuredly, being part of my family, will be compelled to cook someday - a foolproof recipe that would carry them through whatever hungers or challenges befell them, it would be something like this:

Make sure your brains and knives are sharp.

Try to be there for people who need you when they need you and don't be disappointed that means your food gets cold. You can always heat it up again.

Cook as you like but be open to suggestions. Especially if they involve apple schnapps.

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