As much as I like long Italian summers and as much as I relish preparing summer food, I feel – and look – decidedly more at home in autumn: probably my favorite time of year to cook.
Testaccio market is a dependable way to stir my cooking spirits, but never more so than in late October/early November when the now undeniably down-at-heel but resolutely good and spirited market is bosky and damp with autumn and it’s stalls are overflowing with good things. Here, amongst the boisterous Roman chaos, the chestnuts shine like polished mahogany and young pale walnuts, like the wrinkled faces of weather worn old farmers, beg to be cracked open. On most stalls sits a dusty orange pumpkin, the size of squashed basketball, beside it a knife with which the fruttivendolo will cut you a slice of bright orange flesh to make your pumpkin risotto. There are mushrooms, if you’re lucky boletus edulis, better known as porcini – which means little pigs – with their rust colored caps and fat bulbous stems which are indeed like fat piglets or the chubby legs of my seven week old son. You’ll find fragrant quince, their golden skin hiding modestly behind a strange downy coat, freckled pears waiting to be poached in red wine, apples to be eaten just so or baked with butter and brown sugar, and the first of the winter citrus: lemons, oranges and clementines. Stalls are a patchwork of dark green, orange and splashed with red: heaps of spinach tumble into piles of winter cabbage, cavolo nero and leafy Sicilian broccoli, bunches of carrots with their feathery headdresses nuzzle up to curiously lumpy and undeniably phallic squash and heads of deep red raddicio.
First I bought quinces, which I’ve already told you about. Next mushrooms, not porcini but wrinkled morels, some of which I fryed with an artery clogging quantity of butter and garlic and piled on toast. The rest of my autumnal toadstools went into a risotto, not my best risotto it has to be said, but that’s what comes of cooking one-handed while trying to burp a wriggling baby. Then I bought chestnuts and walnuts, a kilo of both to be, in turn, roasted and cracked, a bag of clementines and a butternut squash for soup.
Usually by this time of year I am well up to soup speed and producing at least two large panfuls a week. I have been known to topple into soup frenzy sometime in mid November, sautéing, simmering and pureeing everything that enters the kitchen, overdosing on liquid lunches, swearing I will never eat a particular soup again and then forcing the surplus into my tiny freezer, meaning the door won’t shut and the ice melts. But not this year. A long, hot summer that spilled over into autumn, the arrival of my porcini legged son and my generally shoddy kitchen presence has meant soup progress has been sluggish. The experiments with this soup and a serious quantity of pasta ceci however, have redressed the balance and my kitchen can reclaim – part-time at least- the title ‘Soup kitchen’ once again.
At first this was simply a butternut squash soup. Then one day while foraging – it’s all the rage you know – I happened upon a few cooked cannelloni beans lurking in the fridge. I added them to the orange soup, half while it was simmering and the rest after pureeing so as to leave some beans whole. I have continued to add them ever since. The dense, fine-grained and silky flesh of butternut squash makes really good soup: thick and velvety, savory and sweet. Add some white beans and it’s even more substantial and hearty. A soporific orange soup studded with soft, nutty beans. Delicious, but could send you and your tastebuds to sleep if it weren’t for the parmesan rind (which I will come too later) and a grating of nutmeg. The parmesan gives the soup a salty savory kick and the nutmeg – my favorite spices, the pirate of a spice world, like the sweet and spicy, dusty and dirty bark of a tropical tree, it’s apparently hallucinogenic to boot – livens things up.
This recipe is more or less the template I use for every vegetable soup I make. It’s a well trodden soup path and one I’m sure you’re familiar with. You sauté the kitchen holy trinity in a mixture of butter and a little olive oil. Once the vegetables are soft, you add the diced squash – a compact, sweet squash is crucial here, a spongy, insipid specimen will produce a spongy insipid soup. Next a glug of wine or cooking sherry for the pan and another for the cook, a parmesan rind and a litre of water. You could of course use stock, but if you have good vegetables that taste proper and vitally as they should, water will do. You let the soup bubble and burp away s for 25 minutes -adding some beans at half time -until the squash is extremely tender. Once the soup is ready, you puree half of it until smooth and creamy and then return it to the pan. To finish, you season the soup with salt and a grating of nutmeg.
Back to the rind.
Left over parmesan rinds, with the inch of cheeses still clinging to them, are magic. Well not magic exactly, but just brilliant for soup. If you add a rind or two (depending on how meticulously you have cut away the cheese from the rind) to the pan, they add a deeply savory, salty, smoky depth to the soup. I keep a bag of rinds in the freezer and then throw one – still frozen as the hot soup will soon see to de-frosting duties – into what ever soup is bubbling away on the stove. Once the parmesan rind has done its duty, it’s the cooks duty to gnaw the now soft inch of cheese from the rind.
Good bread, a green salad, a bunch of grapes and a glass of wine and you have a really nice autumn lunch.
Butternut squash and white bean soup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 30g butter
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 1 large carrot
- a stalk of celery
- a medium-sized butternut squash – which should yield about 800g flesh
- 100ml dry white wine or 2 tbsp of cooking sherry (optional)
- 1 litre water
- parmesan rind
- 300g cooked cannellini beans
Peel and small dice the onion, carrot and celery. Warm the oil and butter in a large, heavy based soup pan (which ideally has a lid) and then add the vegetables to it, turning them so they are coated with fat. Sprinkle a little salt over the vegetables and reduce the heat so the vegetables half fry/half braise until soft – stirring every so often – which should take about 10 minutes.
While the vegetables are cooking, peel, deseed and rough chop the butternut squash. Add the squash to the pan and stir for a couple of minutes so each piece is coated with fat. Add the wine or sherry (optional) and allow it to sizzle for a minute or two. Add add the water and the parmesan rind, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer, with the lid slightly ajar, for 25 minutes or until the squash is very tender and starting to collapse. After 15 minutes add half the beans.
When the soup is cooked, remove the parmesan rind and then puree, blend or pass half of it through a mouli and then return it to the pan along with the rest of the beans. Season to taste with salt and a grating of nutmeg.