Velouté de butternut

Butternut soup

This healthy winter soup comes in many forms, and here are two of my favorites — one with Mediterranean flavors and the other Thai style. Being rather bland, butternut squash needs a little pizzazz to make an interesting soup. The Mediterranean version uses cumin and crispy onions, while the Thai version incorporates lime juice and coconut milk.

Both begin with the same basic recipe. The only difference is that the vegetables are sautéed in olive oil for the first, and in vegetable oil for the second. Then, once you’ve blended the soup to a velvety texture (‘velouté’ derives from the French word for ‘velvet’), you can individualize your creation with the different flavorings.

This soup makes a great starter for any meal, and may hold particular appeal for vegetarians and vegans. Serve it with sandwiches at lunchtime, or with a salad followed by cheese and/or fruit for a light supper. It has enough character to kick off a more elaborate dinner as well. The quantities below serve 4-6.

Starting the soup
1 butternut squash
1 onion
1 tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
1 quart (1 liter) water
2 tsp. sea salt or table salt

Finishing the Mediterranean version
1 tsp. cumin
1 lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 red onion or regular onion
2 tsp. olive oil

fresh herbs for garnish: dill, mint or cilantro

Finishing the Thai version
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 lime
salt or Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam) to taste
2 tsp. sugar, preferably demerara or cassonnade
1/2 tsp.  Asian hot sauce (sambal oelek)
fresh herbs for garnish: cilantro

Starting the soup

Slice off the ends of the butternut squash, then slice it down the middle. Remove the seeds and stringy bits at the core. Now comes the hard part — peeling it. Sharpen a knife, place the halves flatside down on a board, and slice through them crosswise at about 1-inch (2.5 cm) intervals. Then turn each piece on its side and slice away the peel. Cut the peeled pieces into cubes and set aside.

Peel and mince the onion.

In a large soup pot, heat 1 tsp. oil to sizzling — olive for the Mediterranean version, vegetable for the Thai. Add the minced onion. Sauté, stirring, for a couple of minutes until the onion has wilted. Do not let it brown. Then add the butternut pieces and sauté briefly.

Add the water and salt and bring the pot to a boil. The water should cover the vegetables completely. When the pot boils, reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until the squash is very tender, about 40 minutes. Keep a close eye on the pot to make sure all the water doesn’t evaporate. Add more water as necessary.

When the butternut is tender, blend the soup, adding more water as you go. It should be perfectly smooth and have the consistency of heavy cream.

Return the soup to a clean pot. Now continue with the version you choose.

Finishing the Mediterranean version

Stir in the cumin. Cut the lemon in two and squeeze one-half through a sieve over the soup. Stir and taste. If it’s not sharp enough, repeat with the other lemon half. Add some salt and pepper and taste again. Add more cumin if necessary. The soup should be mildly spicy with a kick from the lemon.

Peel the red/regular onion and slice into fine rings. Heat 2 tsp. olive oil in a small skillet and sauté the onion rings until they are a crispy brown. Remove to a paper towel.

Just before serving, reheat the soup gently. If you like, you can snip in some fresh herbs — dill, mint or cilantro. Ladle into bowls and top with the crispy onions. Garnish with a sprig of herbs. Serve piping hot. Serves 6 as a starter, 4 as a main dish.

Finishing the Thai version

Stir in the coconut milk. Cut the lime in two and squeeze one-half into the soup through a sieve. Add a little salt or fish sauce. Add the sugar and the hot sauce. Stir and taste. The soup should be sour, sweet, salty and hot (spicy), and you may need to add more of this or that ingredient to balance or intensify the flavors.

Just before serving, reheat the soup gently. If you like, you can stir in some snipped cilantro. Ladle into bowls and top with a swirl of coconut milk and a leaf of cilantro. Serve piping hot. Serves 6 as a starter, 4 as a main dish.

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