Start Thanksgiving meal with savory squash soup
What's the first thing you'll serve to your guests when they sit down to Thanksgiving dinner next week?
That's an important question for any menu. The first course sets the tone for the meal to come. It should, as the old phrase goes, whet the appetite, sharpening the senses and adding a happy edge to guests' anticipation. A great introductory dish should not only look beautiful, smell enticing and taste delicious, but also satisfy and leave guests wanting more.
At Thanksgiving, the stakes are even higher. It's important to evoke an all-American tradition by featuring the sorts of harvest-season ingredients that recall the first Pilgrim feast. And, if you're a serious cook, you also want to serve something a little different, without straying too far from expectations.
That's why I like to start my menu with fragrant, golden winter squash soup, like the version I am happy to share with you today from Aram Mardigian, executive chef at my Wolfgang Puck American Grille in the Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Many guests at the hotel, as well as people who live nearby, love to book their Thanksgiving meal at the restaurant, and Chef Aram goes all out with his special-occasion menu.
Many restaurants that serve such a recipe will refer to it as "pumpkin" soup. In fact, you'd have a hard time finding one that actually contains real pumpkin, which can be watery and bland in flavor. (The same is true, by the way, for most pumpkin pies, which -- like products sold as canned pumpkin -- contain more flavorful, better-textured winter squashes like butternut or Hubbard varieties.)
This particular recipe uses both familiar butternut and also kabocha squash, also sometimes called "Japanese pumpkin," a wonderfully flavorful variety that reminds some people of sweet potato.
To enhance the squashes, the recipe calls first for roasting them, a step that helps intensify their flavor and partly caramelizes their natural sugars. Some brown sugar and autumn spices add still more mellow sweetness, while onion and fresh sage contribute a subtly savory dimension.
The easy recipe makes enough for eight appetizer servings, but you can double it for a larger gathering. Unless you have a lot of oven space, however, multiplying the recipe will probably require baking the squashes in batches. Fortunately, the soup is ideal for making ahead, to be reheated just before serving. (Have some extra stock on hand, though, as soup made in advance may need to be thinned slightly.)
I hope this recipe adds an important final piece of the puzzle for your
Thanksgiving menu. Be sure to check next week's column, in which Chef Aram will share a favorite home-style recipe that perfect for your leftover turkey.