I like the challenge of letting a meal develop around a few random ingredients or even a single one. Call it the Chopped compulsion. Most times, though, it’s not about competitiveness, which is really just a competitiveness with myself, as much as it is about economics and circumstances: I don’t want to waste what I have in the fridge or I don’t have time for the grocery store. Other times it is the joy of novelty. Perhaps someone has given me an ingredient, or I walk the aisles of the grocery store waiting to be drawn in by what looks good or interesting. These ingredients are generative constraints; the places from which to leap towards innovation and surprise. As with the composition of a poem, I love discovering what I wasn’t looking for but what seems so inevitable and right when it arrives. In teaching poetry, I regularly tell my students, and remind myself, that you don’t need an idea to write a poem; you just need a little language or a little bit of structure to work against. An ingredient can work the same way.
This time it started with a gift. Holly brought me a beautiful pumpkin seed oil purchased at Zingerman’s on a recent trip to Michigan. Richly viscous and nutty, this oil has a color that appears to go from tar to amber to a corona of chartreuse. I wanted to use it in a way where it wouldn’t be completely lost in the background or as an undercurrent (like in a dressing), both visually and in its taste. I decided to keep the oil’s autonomy by using it in a soup, one that would let the oil shine on its own while still giving it the chance to be incorporated into the whole. In my carnivore-dominant culinary repertoire, I have few vegetarian recipes, but in the fall and winter, I have one for a Moroccan spiced squash soup that is a welcomed regular. When making the soup, I usually blend it partially, leaving chunks of squash and potato before I finish the soup with chickpeas. For this recent meal, I wanted the soup thicker to let the oil rest on top, so it was going to be completely blended. The chickpeas didn’t seem right, but to maintain texture, I purchased some toasted, salted pumpkin seeds. For further texture and earthy flavor, I crisped sage leaves in the oven for a garnish (first coating them in olive oil, then baking them at 325 degrees for about 16 minutes). I also wanted to balance out the oil by increasing the brightness of the soup, so I chose to add cider vinegar.
For the soup, I started with mirepoix, then added garlic, the cider vinegar, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a spice mixture of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, white pepper, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, and oregano. Then I added butternut and acorn squash, russet potatoes, and vegetable stock. When finished, the soup was blended, and I stirred in heavy cream and a little whole milk. I served the soup with a drizzle of the pumpkin seed oil, the pumpkin seeds, and the crispy sage.