Yeah, I know I’m going to hell for the puns. I think it was the endless hours of watching Rocky & Bullwinkle as a kid, in which upcoming episodes would be teased with titles such as “The Midnight Chew-Chew, or Stick To Your Gums” and “Fuels Rush In, or Star Spangled Boner.” In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview Wolfgang Puck, who was as charming on the telephone as he is on the television (and, presumably, in person). I realize that one doesn’t climb to the Elysian heights that Puck has ascended without a healthy double dollop of ego, but I found him to be surprisingly modest. Much like Emeril Lagasse, Puck has built a loyal cadre around him, many of whom have been in his employ for upwards of 20 years, which is no mean feat in the remarkably transient business of hospitality.
And, like virtually everyone who has achieved justifiable fame in the cooking profession (I’m pointedly leaving out many — though by no means all — of TV’s instant celebu-chefs, who maintain a virtual chokehold on the Cooking Channel and the Food Network “reality” shows these days), he laboured for years before ever penetrating the public consciousness, leaving home at 14 to work as an apprentice at a bakery. His first major gig in America was in Indianapolis, of all places.
It was all glamour and glitz from there, Oscar parties and multi-million dollar deals, but his passion for food still comes through in conversation. In fact, here’s a recipe he gave me for Savory Squash Soup that can be served warm or cold, making it an excellent year-round dish.
Savory Squash Soup (serves 6)
4 butternut squash (about 3 3/4 pounds)
2 acorn squash (about 1 3/4 pounds)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 white onions (about 4 ounces), peeled, trimmed, and finely diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
8 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, heated
2 cups heavy cream
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
Spiced Caramelized Pecans***
8 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
Preheat the oven to 350° F/ 175° C.
Cut each squash in half and discard the seeds. Brush cut sides with 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Arrange the squash cut side down in a roasting pan and bake until tender, about 1 hour. Cool, scoop out the insides of the squash, and purée the flesh in a food processor. Reserve. (You should have about 6 cups of puréed squash.)
In a medium stockpot, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Over low heat, sauté the onion. Do not allow it to brown. Add the puréed squash and cook over very low heat until heated through, stirring occasionally. Do not allow it to bubble up. Season with the salt, pepper, ginger, and cardamom.
Pour in the stock and bring to a boil, still over low heat, stirring often. Cook about 20 minutes.
In a small saucepan, heat the cream with the rosemary sprig. Remove the rosemary and pour the cream into the soup. Transfer to a blender or food processor and process, in batches, for 2 or 3 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
To serve, ladle the soup into heated bowls. Place a tablespoon of Cranberry Relish in the center, top with a dollop of Cardamom Cream, then sprinkle with chopped pecans. Drizzle pumpkin seed oil over soup.
Note: If desired, bake small squash until tender, scoop out, and use as individual serving bowls.
Note #2: You don’t need to make the full recipe for the Cranberry Relish if you’re using it only for the soup.
*Instructions for Cranberry Relish (serves 6)
3 cups cranberries, fresh
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup verjus or 4 tablespoons lemon juice
In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Continue to cook until the mixture is thick and the berries are glazed. Allow to cool. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until needed.
**Instructions for Cardamom Cream
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon black cardamom seeds
In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of heavy cream and the cardamom seeds to a boil. Reduce until only 1/4 cup remains. Strain through a wire sieve and allow to cool.
Add flavored cream to the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream and whip until stiff peaks form. Chill until ready to serve.
***Instructions for Spiced Caramelized Pecans
1 1/2 cups peanut oil
1 cup pecan halves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Add pecans to a pot of boiling water in two batches, boiling for two minutes. Drain and shake off all excess water.
Sprinkle salt and cayenne over nuts. Coat with sugar, allowing the sugar to melt into the pecans.
Toss the nuts in the strainer, slowly adding all sugar. [NOTE: Do not use utensil to toss.]
Carefully add nuts to hot oil. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove with slotted spoon and allow to cool on cookie sheet.