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Golden opportunity

Special to The Times

THIS time of year always makes me anxious: so many squashes, so little time. Farmers markets are all cascading with kabocha and buttercup and other varieties with deep flavors and short seasons, and I can’t bake and butter them fast enough.

But the squash that gets chefs thinking is none of the above, and that’s extremely calming. Pick up a menu in a high-end restaurant, or look over the choices in a takeout shop, and odds are the soup special is butternut squash. No matter that this is one squash that’s available anytime, anywhere. Familiarity somehow breeds inspiration.

Butternut squash is the empty canvas of the vegetable world. Alone, it has a sublimely smooth texture and just-sweet-enough flavor. But when it’s seasoned and garnished or otherwise embellished, it can be elevated to art. Something as simple as chopped ginger adds as much impact as overly indulgent cubes of sauteed foie gras. And unlike other soups made from common vegetables, whether carrot or potato, butternut’s identity never gets lost no matter what garnishes are added.

Just a couple of years ago chefs were equally besotted with another unlikely candidate for soup stardom, celery root. Now it’s easy to understand why they have turned back to butternut squash. Its very name sounds like the essence of autumn, despite its omnipresence in supermarket produce aisles all year round.

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It has the highest yield of any squash, with very low seed-to-flesh ratio, and it’s definitely the easiest to prep, with a sleek skin so thin you can whisk it away with a potato peeler.

But most important, it’s the ultimate chameleon. A little chorizo can orient it toward Spain, a little curry powder toward southeast Asia, a crumble of Gorgonzola toward Italy.

Creamy or caramelized

Butternut squash soup is also simplicity itself, which may be one reason you won’t find it in a can. You can just add peeled chunks of the raw flesh to simmering stock, then puree it and get an exceptionally satisfying bisque, with or without cream. Or you can bake a halved and seeded squash until it caramelizes to amplify the flavor with even less work, then puree it with stock. (Teamed with caramelized roasted garlic, it’s amazing.)

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You can change the soup’s character at the beginning of cooking, or, at the end, by garnishing it with anything that adds flavor (crumbled Maytag blue, slivered smoked turkey) or crunch and flavor (chopped pecans, toasted pumpkin seeds, crumbled smoky bacon). And butternut squash soup takes well to aggressive flavorings, particularly red or green Thai curry pastes, cumin or chipotle chiles.

I don’t have a sweet tooth, but even I’ll concede that butternut squash is improved by spices usually destined for pumpkin pie: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace and allspice. Cardamom will also add a high note. When going this route, dried cranberries are a natural garnish.

Simmering the squash with other ingredients, whether fruits or vegetables, makes the soup more complex. Apples, pears, even bananas are all good complements even when you’re starting with water or with the holy trinity of soup flavorings: onions, celery and carrots. (Leeks instead of onions produce an even more balanced soup.)

Because butternuts have an inherently rich flavor, you may choose to make soup from them using nothing richer than water. Homemade turkey or chicken stock is best, though, unless you want more of a Southeast Asian flavor with coconut milk substituting. In any case, you don’t want to shortcut the soup by not starting with aromatic vegetables and cooking carefully. The richest garnish cannot compensate for a flavor-free puree.

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In fact, one of the best butternut variations I have ever tried was from a recipe from Brigtsen’s restaurant in New Orleans.

It starts with a stock made from shrimp shells, which adds one level of flavor; is enriched with the pureed shrimp themselves, which adds texture and another level; and is finished with a small dairy’s worth of cream, which melds all the tastes into one rich potful.

If you’re in the mood for other kinds of excess, a splash of Cognac or Calvados will do the trick. And if you want the seafood-squash contrast with less work and no cream, just garnish the soup with seared scallops or sauteed shrimp.

Butternut squash soup can survive any garnish, even the one at a high-end French restaurant in New York that combines no less than cinnamon marshmallows, orange zest, nutmeg and huckleberries.

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All that would be lost on a kabocha.

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Basic butternut squash soup

Total time: About 45 minutes

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Servings: 6 to 8

Note: Other large winter squash can be substituted for the butternut, particularly buttercup or Kabocha or even pie pumpkin, but you may want to increase the seasonings.

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

2 medium leeks, carefully washed and coarsely chopped

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3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped

2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 fresh jalapeno, seeded and chopped

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1 teaspoon dried thyme, or to taste

Coarse sea salt to taste

1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into rough cubes

4 cups turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade (or use water)

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1/2 cup heavy cream

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Handful of toasted chopped pecans for garnish (optional)

1. Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, celery, carrots, ginger, jalapeno and thyme. Season well with salt. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are wilted, about 15 minutes.

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2. Stir in the squash and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, or until all the vegetables are falling-apart soft.

3. Remove the pot from the heat and let the contents cool slightly. Working in batches, puree the mixture in a blender until smooth.

4. Return the puree to a clean pot and stir in the cream. Heat through gently; do not allow to boil. Season with additional salt if needed and with pepper to taste.

5. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with pecans and serve at once. Makes 8 cups.

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Each of 8 servings: 163 calories; 3 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 38 mg. cholesterol; 86 mg. sodium.

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Brigtsen’s butternut shrimp bisque

Total time: About 1 hour

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Servings: 6 to 8

Note: This hyper-rich soup is adapted from a recipe by Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s in New Orleans. Shrimps with heads on are available in Asian markets.

1 pound medium shrimp, heads on

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

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2 cups diced onions

1 bay leaf

4 cups (about 1 medium) peeled, seeded and diced butternut squash

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

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1/8 teaspoon ground white

pepper

3/8 teaspoon ground cayenne

1/4 teaspoon dried basil

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1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic

1 quart heavy cream

1 cup half-and-half

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1/2 teaspoon fresh basil, very finely chopped

18 to 24 whole shrimp, butterflied and sauteed, for garnish

1. Shell the shrimp. Place the heads and shells in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes. Strain the broth and reserve.

2. Heat a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons butter, the onions and bay leaf. Cook, stirring constantly, until the onions start to brown, about 5 to 6 minutes.

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3. Reduce the heat to medium and add the squash. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash begins to soften and turn brown, 7 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low and add 1 tablespoon butter and the peeled shrimp. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimps turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Add the salt, white pepper, cayenne, basil, thyme and garlic. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan with a metal spoon. (This procedure will intensify the taste of the soup.) Add 1 1/2 cups reserved shrimp stock and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.

6. Remove the pot from the heat. Discard the bay leaf. Transfer the contents to a food processor and puree until smooth. Return the puree to a clean saucepan and add the cream and half-and-half. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer 2 to 3 minutes. Just before serving, add the fresh basil and remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Top each serving with several sauteed shrimp.

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Each of 8 servings: 641 calories; 20 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 56 grams fat; 34 grams saturated fat; 311 mg. cholesterol; 903 mg. sodium.

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Curried coconut butternut squash soup

Total time: About 1 hour, 15

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minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds), halved and seeded

4 extra-large cloves garlic,

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unpeeled

1 tablespoon light sesame oil or peanut oil

1 (13 1/2 -ounce) can coconut milk

1 to 2 teaspoons Thai green curry paste

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Salt to taste

Fresh lime juice to taste

Chopped Thai basil, cilantro or scallions for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lay the squash cut side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place the garlic cloves on a double thickness of foil and drizzle with oil. Fold the foil into a packet around the garlic and lay it on the baking sheet. Bake until both squash and garlic are very soft and the squash is caramelized, about 1 hour. Let stand until cool enough to handle.

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2. Scrape the squash pulp into a soup pot. Squeeze the garlic out of the skins into the pot.

3. Shake the can of coconut milk well and pour the contents into the pot. Add 1 can cold water. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes.

4. Cool slightly. Transfer the mixture to a blender, working in batches, and puree until smooth. Wipe the pot clean and return the soup to it.

5. Add the curry paste, starting with 1 teaspoon and working up to desired heat. Simmer until warmed through. Season with salt to taste. Add the lime juice to taste. Serve garnished with either Thai basil, cilantro or scallions. Makes 5 1/2 cups.

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Each of 6 servings: 194 calories; 2 grams protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 17 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 13 mg. sodium.


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