So, tomorrow at sundown is the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It’ll be the year 5771 for us. And how will we celebrate? With food, naturally. I mean, my people like to eat.
Rosh Hashana and Passover are the two holidays that I remember my grandmother really “doing.” She and my grandfather had both been raised in observant households and ran their own household slightly differently. The holidays were observed but with much less strict-ness than they had known. They didn’t keep kosher (kosher would mean no lobster and no Chinese food and that’s just, well, wrong) and while they did attend temple services, they didn’t have fifteen different sets of dishes.
So I follow suit. We observe the holiday traditions, if not the religious teachings. Every Rosh Hashana and Passover, I make a big meal and we open our home to our friends and family. Some years it’s just a few of us. Other years we have tables stretching into the living room. There was one Passover that was upwards of 25 people. It’s a nice way to ring in the new year, I think, surrounded by people we love.
Because the Jewish calendar isn’t a roman one, Rosh Hashana and Passover sort of “float”, meaning they’re never the same date. I mean, they’re the same date on the Jewish calendar but not on the one we use. It means that sometimes Rosh Hashana falls at the end of September when it’s starting to cool off and the fall foods that traditionally go with the holiday can be enjoyed and sometimes it falls at the beginning of September and the fall foods feel heavy and too hot for comfort. That’s this year, sadly.
But there are foods I must make because they go with the holidays. Mashed potatoes are one. In fact, one year I didn’t make them and one of my guests was so disappointed that she blurted out, “But that’s why I came! For your mashed potatoes!” We had a grand old time teasing her about that one and to make up for it, I made mashed potatoes the next day and brought them to her house. Another traditional food is squash soup. Sadly, tomorrow will be something like 80 degrees and no one will really want to eat soup but make it I must. If I don’t someone is likely to blurt out, “But that’s why I came! For the soup!”
When I make big meals, it takes a few days to get ready. I make several things in advance so that by the time the evening rolls around I’m mostly heating up and topping off dishes. I made this soup on Sunday and tomorrow when I get home from work I’m going to pour it into the crock pot and get it going on high so that it’s warm enough to eat by 6pm and it’s not in my way as I cook other things on the stove.
There are several stories that go with this soup and at the risk of making this post far, far too long, I’m going to tell two of them. The first is the origin of the soup recipe. When I graduated from college I had a degree in theater and no idea what I wanted to do. So I moved to Israel and lived on my family’s kibbutz. I ended up working in the kitchen, making friends, drinking far too much and just having a generally wonderful time. It was a fantastic year and there are times when I hear a certain song or smell a particular odor and I am immediately transported back to that time and place. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything (and still keep in touch with several of the people I met there, despite being scattered all over the world- Denmark, South Africa, Australia). At any rate, one of the other volunteers was Dan, a tall, lanky, flamboyantly gay South African guy. Oh my goodness was he fabulous. He had worked as a cook before coming to Israel and he taught me to make this soup- he called it “pumpkin” soup but we used butternut squash even then. Each time I make it, I think of Dan and picture him with a towel wrapped around his head, sunglasses on, cigarette hanging from his mouth, wearing my bra. Go ahead, I know you’re trying to picture it too. Let’s just say it was late, we were all drunk and we had been on the beach in Eliat. ‘Nuff said.
The second story of the soup has to do with my cousin. She’s not a good cook but she had learned how to make this soup and was excited to have the Hippo over for dinner so she could really cook for her. The cousin went through all the steps of making the soup but it just wasn’t right. So she called me. We talked it over, trying to problem solve it. I offered suggestions- was the heat too high? Had she not added enough butter? Maybe it was the wrong kind of squash? Nope, nope and nope. She described it to me and said that it just seemed like squash, not soup. So I asked, “Well, how much broth did you add?”
Right, she’d forgotten to add the broth, you know, the thing that makes soup soupy. So she added it and she and the Hippo enjoyed a lovely meal. And a few good laughs.
Pumpkin (Butternut Squash) Soup
1 stick of butter
1 large sweet onion, chopped
1-2 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into chunks
1-2 containers of chicken broth or stock (or homemade if you’re into that kind of thing)
1/2-2 cups of milk or light cream (Optional)
Melt the butter in a large stock or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and let it cook until soft and almost translucent. Don’t let the onions crisp up or brown, if they start to do so, turn down the heat. Once the onions are soft, add the butternut squash and stir to sort of coat the chunks in the butter. Let them cook for about three to five minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour in enough broth or stock to cover the chunks and let it come to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn down the heat and let it simmer until the squash is soft and sort of melting into the broth.
If you have an immersion blender, now is the time to use it. Blend the soup to the consistency you like- some people like to leave a few chunks of squash for texture. I prefer it to be smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender you can use a regular blender but it’s a pain in the ass to transfer all that soup. You can also use a potato masher or fork but you will end up with very chunky soup (still delicious just a different texture). If it seems too thick to be soup (and just seems to resemble mashed squash) you either forgot to add the broth like my cousin did or you just need to add more broth to thin it. If you want to be really decadent, you can add cream to it to help thin it out and to add some silkiness to it. It’s really good with cream. It’s almost as good with milk. It’s still pretty good with just broth. You make the call. Whatever you add, make sure to salt and pepper to taste and to re-heat so that you don’t get lukewarm soup. Nobody likes lukewarm soup.