Sunday, 24 February 2008

Pumpkin soup (Κολοκυθόσουπα)

I've been making pumpkin soup since I started living on my own, and started taking charge of my own kitchen, cooking things I never ate at home, mainly due to a lack of interest on the part of the chief (and only) cook in our traditional Greek home. Mother didn't want us meddling in her kitchen. It was her 'myspace'. Now that I'm a mother myself, I understand my own mother better; I hate it when someone takes charge of my kitchen. My husband gets an earful when he chops bread and doesn't clear the crumbs, or when he drags in garden produce and strews soil all over the worktop.

I've always had a love for spicy food, so when I was given a pumpkin recently by my uncles (bachelor experienced farmers), I couldn't wait to turn it into pumpkin soup. My last round of soup-making involved a recipe by a famous chef turning leeks and potatos into something delicious called 'potage', so I was willing to give Gordon Ramsay another chance. I found a Gordon Ramsay recipe on the bfeedme website.

One thing that must be pointed out is that Gordon Ramsay's name has been used by a food blogger, who obviously hasn't tried the recipe themselves. The recipe was actually copied straight from a timesonline food article, which obviously had been misprinted: one of the biggest problems with the recipe (both timesonline and bfeedme) was that it listed apples in the ingredients, but didn't mention what the apples were doing in the recipe. Do they get browned with the onions, or boiled in the stock? Were they not supposed to be there at all? (In any case, I am not a great fan of mixing my sweet with my savoury, so I left them out all together.)

I did a quick check of other pumpkin soup recipes (as I have always called orange squash myself), and found that they were all roughly the same as Gordon Ramsay's poshly named 'lightly spiced butternut squash soup'. PumpkinPatches does a nice job pointing out that it's easy to boil and mash pumpkin rather than buying canned pumpkin mash, elise adds more heat to some mass-produced curry powder, myhouseandgarden adds potato (instead of carrot, as PumpkinPatches did) and so on, and so forth. Gordon's soup is just another variation of the others.

My next quibble is with the callous manner which cooks use the word 'curry', meaning curry powder. For a start, authentic South Asian cooking does not use a ready mix of spices, nor do they use the word 'curry' in the way we have associated the word with any spicy-hot Indian dish. In actual fact, meals are prepared with individual spices, not a general melee of cumin-smelling (as mild curry is usually made of) or chili-tasting (as hot curry is usually made of) powders. And for the real taste of a good 'curry' (pardon my use of the word), it is important for the cook to grind the actual spices into powder before using them. This is the reason why I never have mass-produced curry powder in my kitchen and why I like to have a well-stocked spice cupboard. It sounds so labour-intensive making your own spice mix; I've tried this before, and it really is worth the effort.

Here's a basic recipe for spicy pumpkin soup, without resorting to mass-produced powders or tinned products procedures.

You need:
2 tablespoons of olive oil
15g butter (the mix of oil and butter gives the soup a spicier taste, but you can use oil only for a lenten meal)
2 onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
2 bay leaves
a small piece of minced fresh ginger (thanks to the influx of economic migrants into Crete, this is available in most supermarkets; you can use powdered ginger if you don't have any fresh stuff)
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder (fresh turmeric root is not available in Crete)
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon of ground dried chili peppers
salt and freshly ground black pepper (here's a tip: grind all the spices together in a pestle and mortar; it will save heaps of time)
1 litre hot chicken stock (I use stock cubes because chicken stock in our house is always turned into pilafi)
250g peeled cubed pumpkin, cut into cubes
a handful of parsley leaves, chopped (it would be great to have fresh coriander instead, but this is not readily available in Crete)
Heat the oil and butter, then add the onions, garlic, ginger and ground spices. It is important to sizzle the spices in the oil because it adds more flavour to the dish. Stir well, then cover the pan with a lid and cook over a low heat for a few minutes until the onions begin to soften. Tip in the squash and stir it around, being careful not to let it stick to the bottom of the pot. Cook for about 10-12 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender and lightly caramelised. Pour in just enough hot stock to cover the vegetables and gently simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Fish out and discard the bay leaves. In batches, purée the soup in a food processor or liquidiser until smooth. Return the soup to the pan to reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Ladle the soup into warm bowls and garnish with the parsley.

Pumpkin soup doesn't look like much, just a bowl of orange-coloured goo. That's why the flavour of the spices is so important. Some people also add cream to this soup, but pumpkin is so creamy in itself that it seems like a waste of extra calories to do this! And you know you can also freeze it in small servings, too. This soup goes really well with some roast meat - Gordon apparently serves it with pancetta, a kind of fatty rasher of pork (similar to a bacon slice). In Greece, this is a small fatty pork chop, readily available at the supermarket meat counter.

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Chicken stock
Poached fish soup
Fennel soup
Leek and potato potage
Lentil soup
Bean soup
Black-eyed bean soup
French onion soup
Fish soup