Sunday, November 8, 2009

From the Menu: Chestnut, Farro and Kabocha Squash Soup

Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe continually inspire me. I especially love their rough soups. Most puréed food seems silly to me anymore, although I understand its kid-appeal. And even when I do go that route - for intense amalgamated flavor - I'll add texture back to what I'm making by finishing it with big chunky bits of whatever is in it, and/or rough-cut herbs, little buttery croutons, crisped cured pork. I want to feel the shape of what I’m eating.

I’ve tweaked this recipe slightly. Crumbly, dense kabocha squash is a favorite, so I’ve substituted it for the onion pumpkin called for. I crave the dark smoky heat of chilies de arbol, so I've used them specifically and have upped the ante... be careful here. And, as all I had in the house one evening was guanciale (cured pork cheeks), I used it for the pancetta and it was wonderful, too. Try it if you have some. Sage also works beautifully for the rosemary, and to me the dish begs for a hard, nutty cheese like parmesan.

Chestnut, Farro and Kabocha Squash Soup

1- 1/2 pounds fresh chestnuts
2 pounds (one smallish) Kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, cut into
1-inch cubes
6 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3/4 cup farro
8 oz pancetta or guanciale, cut into lardons
2 medium red or yellow onions, sliced in half lengthwise, then in
1/4-inch slices lengthwise
1 whole head celery, washed well, dried, and cut into 1/4 -inch
diagonals widthwise (save the leaves for finishing the soup)
6 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
3 mediumchilies de arbol, or other dried chilie, seeded and crumbled (use less if you don't like much heat)
2 teaspoons sage or rosemary leaves, roughly chopped, about 1 stem
5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
Virgin olive oil to finish
2 oz. Parmesan (optional)

Preheat oven to 375. Lightly score an x into chestnut shells on the flat side, trying not to cut into the nut meat too much. Spread them on a sheet pan and roast 20 to 30 minutes until the shells curl away from the nut. Cool, peel and roughly slice. Set aside. Toss squash with 3 tablespoons olive oil, a pinch of salt, pepper and the brown sugar. Spread on a sheet pan and roast until fully tender, about 30 minutes. Set aside. Place the farro in a small pot and cover with water by an inch. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes until al dente. Remove from water and spread out on a plate to cool.

In a large, lined pot big enough to hold the soup heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat and sauté pancetta until rendered and lightly browned. Add onions, celery, a good pinch of salt and pepper and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, chilies and rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the chestnuts and the squash and cook for 5 minutes. Add the farro and cover with stock by 1-inch (add water if necessary). Simmer about 15 minutes. The squash should melt partially into the soup, making it lusciously orange, yet still remain in chunks. Taste and season if necessary with more salt and pepper. Serve in warm soup bowls with a drizzle of virgin olive oil, celery leaves and shaved parmesan.


The amount of celery in the recipe - a whole bunch - is surprising, but its peppery green presence is pure counterpoint to the soup’s sweet richness. Also, in her brilliant Cucina del Sole, Nancy Harmon Jenkins points out that the celery in Italy is a much rougher affair than ours - so don’t be afraid to use all the seemingly tough outer stalks, too, as it is entirely authentic.

The soup is also completely delicious in vegetarian mode: hold the cured meat, add a tad more oil to cook the vegetables, then bring it all together with vegetable stock or water.

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