Wednesday, March 26, 2014

QUICK BITE: Salmon with Mustard Cream Sauce

It's been a long winter. Yes, the understatement of the year. I'm writing now in New York City, where it's a cool 33 degrees and almost April. This makes everyone in the city a little stir-crazy, itching for the thaw of spring weather and fresh green anything. Personally, I've had it with "restorative" soups and stews, braised meats and root vegetables galore -- much as I love these items in the thick of winter's cold. So, what to make when the mercury says it's still winter but our hearts, minds, and palates are aching for spring? Salmon with mustard cream sauce is the perfect "bridge" dish between the seasons. 

We all know by now that salmon boasts lots of Omega-3 fatty acids and that it's one of the most healthful varieties of fish to consume. A tangy mustard-cream sauce is a classic accompaniment that really brightens the fish and cuts its strong flavor and richness with zing. Adding a bit of freshly chopped dill to the sauce is a classic herbal touch, though not necessary. Pairing the fish with some winter veggies -- we do have to clear out our fridges of beloved winter greens somehow, don't we? -- grounds the meal in the now while we look towards the coming spring with open arms (and full bellies!). Roasted beets, sauteed brocoletti (with plenty of garlic and chili pepper), and a long grain and wild rice combo are the perfect sides to make this a well-rounded dinner. A mix of color is the easiest way for you to create a balanced meal without much effort.
How to make the sauce? Simple. You can use the same pan you use to cook the salmon. First, heat some olive oil in a saute' pan (nonstick is best). Sprinkle the salmon fillet with plenty of salt, and place in the pan. Note: if you have the skin on the fillet, you can place it skin side down in the pan first, to crisp it up. Otherwise, put the top side down. Second, sear for 3-4 minutes on the first side so it releases from the pan easily. Flip, and cook on the other side for another 4 minutes or so. Salmon is best served medium-rare to medium (if you like it cooked through, you can place in a 350-degree oven to finish). Third, remove salmon fillet from pan, and pour about 1/2 cup heavy cream into the pan. Add 1-2 tablespoons of grainy dijon mustard, and gently whisk to mix completely. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the sauce thickens a bit. Add salt to taste, and if you're adding chopped dill (chives or parsley work well, too), do that at the very end. Mix, taste for seasoning, and then  pour the sauce around the salmon fillet and any sides you like. Come spring, this salmon-and-sauce works extremely well with simple seared asparagus, as in the photo above. 

Enjoy, and here's to a tasty, soon-to-arrive SPRING!

Friday, March 14, 2014

ESCAPES: Chile's Central Coast: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar

At this point in the winter season, when we've all had our fill of snow and frigid temperatures, our sights turn to warmer climates and waterside escapes. One appealing antidote? Chile. And specifically, Chile's Central Coast featuring the towns of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.

After a long holiday season filled with seemingly endless work hours for both myself and my friend Jessica (a dear friend of mine from my time in Rome who returned to her childhood hometown of Providence, Rhode Island when she left Italy), we were looking for an escape. She's a jewelry designer in constant search of quirky keepsakes from her travels, which she then "translates" into original pieces of wearable art. I'm a chef in constant search of new flavors and cultures from which to draw inspiration in the kitchen. We travel well together. And we decided Chile would be the perfect spot: it offered warm weather in December and January (southern hemisphere summer), good food (ceviche!), good wine (more on that in another post), and interesting and eclectic culture and history (always a good thing for market trips, sightseeing, and interesting travel). An added bonus for me? The beach! With the help of suggestions from a dear high school friend who'd moved to Chile a few years ago, we were able to cobble together a nice 10 day vacation with work benefits built in. We began and ended our journey in the Chilean capital of Santiago (look for my Santiago dining post to come soon), but spent New Year's Eve, and several relaxing days afterwards, kicking off the new year in sunny, 85 degree weather on the Pacific. And though these two sister towns are right next to each other, they offer visitors a yin and yang of Chile's central coast.

Valparaiso ("Paradise Valley") is historically a port town -- until the Panama Canal opened, it was South America's busiest -- a working class city-on-a-hill. Actually, it's built on more than 45 hills, or cerros, which are covered with colorfully-painted houses, often constructed out of the corrugated metal torn from shipping containers, that look like candy confections tossed on undulating hills tumbling towards an azure sea. "Valpo" as it's called, is Chile's second-largest metropolitan area, and though it's on the sea, it's not a beach town. It's a somewhat chaotic jumble of South American culture and topography, Caribbean color, Germanic and Slavic immigrant influences in architecture and food, and a summertime climate that mirrors L.A. in the daytime and San Francisco at night. Confusing, yes. Eclectic, of course. And it's a lovely place to pass a few languid days recovering from New Year's Eve.

First off, I must mention Valpo's impressive fireworks display. Until the last couple of years (when a certain Middle Eastern city decided theirs needed to be the biggest and brightest on the planet), Valpo's fireworks show was the most expansive and explosive in the world. After having seen it, frankly I'm not sure I'd want one larger or longer. At just under a half an hour, and done over the C-shaped bay that runs along the Pacific coast to several towns north, the fireworks display was synchronized so you could see the grand fireworks right in front of you as well as those in the distance, all themed the same with the same colors displaying at the same time: really something to behold. We celebrated at a restaurant/bar/music hall called La Piedra Feliz, right on the water in the Errázuriz neighborhood. 
It was probably the busiest area in the city that night, and knowing public transportation was sketchy for the holiday, forewarned was forearmed: we walked from our lovely apartment across town to the restaurant, and were able to see most of the waterfront area of Valpo in the process. Once we (finally!) arrived, we enjoyed a prix fixe dinner with plenty of champagne and pisco sours. We watched the fireworks out of the window of the restaurant on the second floor, and many locals were gathered on the street below us. Once we toasted to 2014, we wandered around the place -- live music and dancing were everywhere, but of course as a chef, I found my way to hanging out at the bar with the staff: our waiter and the Uruguayan chef, and some locals who were friendly and fun...and made sure we never saw the bottoms of our glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.

We were excited to eat the fresh seafood for which Chile is justly famous, so our dinner hours were spent seeking out great fish spots -- and of course for me, this trip was the "Cevichepalooza" I'd been craving, so I had it at every meal I could manage! At Oda Pacifico, we had the place practically to ourselves, and enjoyed the view out over the hills down to the water (it got windy and chilly the night we went, though it would normally be lovely to sit at a table outside on the back patio). Service here, as in most places we went, was slow but extremely warm, and our waiter advised us on what was fresh that evening. We started with a massive portion of mixed seafood ceviche with passion fruit -- two of my favorite things in the world, together in a big bowl! It was delicious, and perfect with our crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc.
Main courses couldn't live up to the ceviche, but I enjoyed a local specialty: conger eel, here grilled and served over a stew of tomatoes, corn, and peas, topped with peppery watercress. Jess had tilapia cooked in a banana leaf, with a coconut-laced sauce. Again, the portions were huge and we couldn't come close to finishing them, but we did manage to wash it all down with more vino blanco. We were on vacation, after all.

Valpo has countless great vistas from which to view the port and the water below, but one destination on a hill, and viewpoint not to be missed, is poet Pablo Neruda's local home, La Sebastiana. The cozy multi-level house resembles part of a ship and fits in perfectly among the pastel houses surrounding it. The decor is often nautically themed, and is quirky and built to entertain, much like the man himself. It's filled with glasses and plates and artwork and bric-a-brac from Neruda's world travels, and like all of his homes, there is a dedicated bar area where he would mix libations for his guests after a day of writing. The view from his home is undoubtedly inspiring.

Viña del Mar
Just next door is Valparaiso's louder, more social sibling, Viña del Mar. It is the Miami Beach of Chile, to put it in U.S. terms, and it's bustling and full of life while Valpo is relaxed and laid back. The shoreline is both rocky and sandy at turns, and the lawns and flower beds are as manicured as the high-rise hotels and condos lining the beach. There is a downtown as well, and boulevards lined with shops and malls and churches and outdoor arcades. This is no sleepy beach town, and it's been the place where locals and the wealthy and famous from Santiago come to play, where they have second homes. It lacks the character and vistas that Valparaiso has, but it makes up for that with the beauty of the coast and the lively, infectious atmosphere in its streets.

As for the food scene in
Viña? Again, seafood is king here, but the variety of dining options is greater. Chile has great primary ingredients, great wine, great pisco. But as for a native cuisine, its neighbor Peru is better known. Case in point? All the ceviches. Seviche, as it's usually written here, comes in so many varieties that it makes sense to go for a sampling of types. At Sazon Peruana, we indulged in the trio at left, which included an octopus seviche with aji amarillo, the spicy Peruvian yellow pepper, as the base. We had local white fish with sweet potato and choclo, the ubiquitous oversized corn kernels. And we had salmon and shrimp with leche de tigre (the citrus juice and spice base of most seviches) with red pepper. I could have bathed in the stuff. We enjoyed mixed grilled seafood atop a salad.
Jess had the seafood soup, a slightly spicy stew of local treats from the Pacific made more substantial with yellow potatoes. And I pushed the boat out, as it were, with a light-as-air fried seafood platter (shrimp, squid, Chilean sea bass) with yucca, tartar sauce, and salsa criolla -- a topping of thinly sliced red onion, cilantro, and fresh chile pepper. The meal at the Peruvian restaurant turned out to be one of the best meals of my trip to Chile!
In Valpo, we lived like locals, renting an apartment in a residential area with a gorgeous view of the entire city from our balcony. In Viña del Mar, we went touristy -- but sometimes, you need to splurge. 
The Sheraton Miramar is perched on a rocky curve of the coast, on the way into town, and it jettisons out into the bright blue-green Pacific. All glass-and-steel, with soaring ceilings, this location was clearly built to allow guests the greatest appreciation of the sea. The shot above was taken from our balcony: the seats to the left are outdoor restaurant tables, as scenic for a seaside lunch as they are in the evening for dinner and drinks, to view the sparkling lights of the bay surrounding you. The pool overlooking the sea is a dramatic spot for sunbathing, by water both salty and fresh. Attached, there is a wonderful spa and gym where you can work up a sweat and then relax with a massage or facial. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon in January!

All in, we had a wonderful time on Chile's central coast -- not enough time, in fact. There were so many small beach towns lining the coasts both north and south of the Valpo area and we weren't staying long enough to explore them. Places like nearby Reñaca, surfer's paradise Concón, former whaling town Quintay, and the beautiful and aristocratic town of Zapallar: each offer a different taste of this stretch of the Chilean coast. We did make it to Quintero for an afternoon of lazing on the beach and eating empanadas, though it took a mini-hike to discover some less-trodden beach paths. Most of the beaches are rocky, and it's hard to get out of sight of the huge tankers that seem to be permanently parked in this part of the Pacific. But the water is beautiful and the trees and topography are stunning. Another positive? We were the only gringas in sight, always a good sign.

La Piedra Feliz
Avenida Err 1054
+56 (32) 225.6788

Oda Pacifico
Condor 35
+56 (32) 223.8836

La Sebastiana
Ferrari 692
+56 (32) 225.6606

Avenida Marina 15
Viña del Mar
+56 (32) 238.8600

Sazon Peruana
3 Norte 370 Esquina 3 1/2 Poniente
Viña del Mar
+56 (32) 319.1160

Friday, February 28, 2014

RECIPE: Mid-Winter Grain Salad

This has been one loooong winter for the United States, and it's been a freezing, incredibly snowy one for those of us in the Northeast. I've been cooking lots of soups, and will continue to do so, and to enjoy their warming comfort until I can no longer stand to ladle a spoon of hot broth to my lips (a word to Mother Nature: that day is coming soon!) And I love my seasonal winter foods and comfort meals -- stews, roasted meats, root veggies, a nice afternoon tea with accompanying biscuits. But to brighten up my winter repertoire, a seasonal mid-winter grain salad is just the thing to give my palate a much-needed lift.
To start: pick a grain. I chose bulgur wheat here, as it's inexpensive, nutritionally sound, and one of the many bags of grains I had on hand in my pantry. Bulgur wheat has already been parboiled and dried when we purchase it, so technically it doesn't need to be boiled again to be reconstituted. But one excellent trick I've learned over the years, to add flavor and zing to this grain and eventually the dishes in which it ends up, is to cook the bulgur in a juice that will add flavor and color to the grain when it's cooked. Here I use a beet-carrot-green apple-lemon freshly pressed juice to give the wheat character and a bright color, not to mention added nutritional value as the grain absorbs the juice.

A second element that makes this salad soar is its use of various textures. The grain itself is nutty, chewy. Most grains are. I add crunch with a small dice of celery and green apple. Ditto the pomegranate arils. A softness comes from the roasted cubed butternut squash. The third element is flavor. There's a great interplay between nutty (the grain) and vegetal (celery, parsley), sweet (the squash) and sour (pomegranate, apple). The vinaigrette, which contains rice vinegar as well as lemon juice, brightens everything with an acidic kick. The beauty is that the elements can be substituted and played with, according to what's on hand and what's in season -- and of course, what you like. 
I often add some red onion chopped finely, or shallot. I also sometimes add nuts for additional crunch, like pine nuts or chopped pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. And in spring and summer I add seasonal veggies and fruits, swapping out the butternut squash for zucchini or asparagus or cherry tomatoes, the pomegranate for summer berries or stone fruit. Parsley can be substituted by abundant summer basil, and so on. And the vinaigrette can be played with, so instead of rice vinegar, use white balsamic, or raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar. Use avocado oil, or try pumpkin seed oil with pumpkin seeds as the nut in the salad. Use your imagination! And enjoy a healthy grain salad, mid-winter or any time. 


1 cup bulgur wheat
2 1/2 cups beet-carrot-apple-lemon juice
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch dice
1 green apple, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup pomegranate arils
1/2 cup celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1/8 cup rice vinegar
1 TBSP. dijon mustard
2 TBSP. ponzu
1 TSP. lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Place the diced butternut squash on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and toss with hands to coat evenly.
- Roast the butternut squash in the oven, tossing occasionally to cook evenly, until browned and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 30-45 minutes depending on the power of your oven. Set aside to cool.
- In a pot, bring the bulgur wheat and juice to a boil and cook covered until fully absorbed, about 8 minutes.Dump in a bowl and set aside to cool.
- Whisk together rice vinegar, dijon, ponzu, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. In a slow stream, add the oil and whisk to emulsify. This is your vinaigrette.
- Once the bulgur and butternut squash cool, mix together in a bowl with the celery, pomegranate, green apple, and parsley. Toss to mix.
- Drizzle the vinaigrette on top and toss again to mix.

*This salad is delicious right away, but as it sits in its dressing, the flavor improves, making it another example of a dish that gets better with age.


Friday, February 21, 2014

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Il Santo Bevitore, Firenze, ITALY

In many ways, I feel romana (Roman) at heart. Like many Romans, I certainly adore eating out in the Eternal City, always a convivial and interesting social experience. But I cut my Italian denti (teeth) in Firenze (Florence, in English), as a college student studying abroad. And though I'm a huge supporter of all that Rome has to offer, sometimes I just have to go Tuscan. 

In comparing the restaurants on offer in the two cities, the overall dining scene in Firenze seems much more refined to me. I'm not discussing high-end restaurants, which are a category unto themselves. But for me, in the Tuscan capitol, the classic trattoria feels more cozy and inviting. The bars are more pleasant places to sip an espresso or grab a panino. And the mid-level restaurant's menu is more varied and accomplished, the staff more personable than the brusque Roman waiters and proprietors, the lighting a touch dimmer and more atmospheric. So it was no surprise to me that I found Il Santo Bevitore in my beloved Oltrarno section of town (the "other side" of the Arno River -- the slightly alternative side of town that most European cities have...think Left Bank in Paris or Trastevere in Rome). And I found it to be one of those exceptional mid-range spots for which Florence is renowned.

I've been to Il Santo Bevitore in smoldering summer weather, and I've been here in cold, wet winter. And though most Italian cities are preferable when you can soak in the sun by day and linger in the piazzas by night, I'll admit that I love Florence, and Tuscany in general, in the cooler months of the year. The food here is so hearty that being somewhere cozy and indoors, with dark wood furniture and candlelight and a warm hearth going (oftentimes used for searing enormous Tuscan steaks and slow-cooking cannellini beans), just feels right. Which is why I especially loved Il Santo Bevitore when I returned this January.
The place is sprawling, and hopping, and you're immediately greeted by a friendly face -- in fact, the restaurant is run by a young team of men and women who excel at warm service (another thing often missing in Rome). The place is usually packed, though waiting is never an unhappy circumstance as there are seats at the bar here, where you can sip a prosecco and watch the barmen slice prosciutto on the antique meat slicer, or you can nip out for a drink at the owners' enoteca next door. 

Once you're seated, you'll need some time to peruse the expansive menu, as there are lots of antipasti and "specialties" that can be eaten as starters or mains. In fact, cobbling together a meal here is a little different than at your classic trattoria, as the structure of antipasto-primo-secondo is a little more fluid. Basically, just select what tempts your palate, and the servers will help you navigate. The same could be said for the wine list, which offers the classics, plus a lot of lesser-known labels, and variations on a theme (the theme? Tuscan reds). Server suggestions are a great help, and you can find some unusual blends and interesting Super Tuscans along with the classic Chiantis. I always enjoy beginning a meal with a glass of prosecco or spumante, which opens up the palate and the appetite. Then, once I've selected the food I'll be eating, I select a wine that will compliment the courses, and not vice-versa. I've always found it strange when, in the States, servers ask you for your wine order right off the bat, before you've even had a chance to look at the cuisine on offer. Servers in Italy don't even normally take your wine order until you've had a chance to consider the menu. A really interesting food-wine pairing is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and opens you up to wines you may never have tried otherwise.

So, then, what to eat? Like most ristoranti in Italy, the menu here changes according to the season. There are Tuscan specialties aplenty, including a riff on the most ubiquitous antipasto in Tuscany: chicken liver crostini. Here, the chicken livers are whipped until smooth and formed into a luscious terrine, which is served warm in a fortified wine sauce, the aroma of rosemary wafting from the plate. Smear a bit on the accompanying brioche toast points for some of the best cool weather comfort food ever imagined. Here too, the classic Tuscan bread soups are on the menu: pappa al pomodoro in summer, when tomatoes are at their finest, and ribollita in winter, when Tuscan kale and hearty white beans add heft to the bread-thickened minestrone. Both are perfectly, classically delicious, and are improved with a glug of green Tuscan olive oil drizzled on top. 

The kitchen does, however, look to outside the region for inspiration, as well. To wit: a gorgeous plate of fresh riccioli pasta with a tomato-'nduja (spicy soft Calabrese sausage) sauce and shaved aged pecorino cheese. It's incredibly more-ish with its unctuous, stinging bite. Another specialty is the burrata -- a rich, cream-filled mozzarella from the southern Puglia region, here served on sauteed spinach (very Florentine) and drizzled with pesto (classically Ligurian).
And bringing various regions together on the plate is the summer offering of borage (a green vegetal herb) ravioli on a burrata sauce with marinated leeks, topped with shaved Sardinian bottarga (cured mullet roe). This dish is a wonderful balancing act of creamy, verdant, briny, and acidic -- and unlike anything you'd find in your average trattoria. Another interesting specialty is the vegetable tortino -- basically a crustless tart, somewhere between a souffle' and a vegetable frittata, done seasonally to highlight a single ingredient. This January it was a tortino di cardone, or cardoon tortino, which is just as Tuscan as it is Sicilian or Piemontese.The vegetable looks like a big, craggy stalk of celery, but tastes more like an artichoke (they're members of the same vegetable family). The tortino was topped with red wild lettuce and a  piece of frica (Friulian baked parmigiano crisp) to mirror the taste of the cheese fonduta sauce on which it sits, making this a perfect warming winter veggie dish.

Secondi include a "crispy" octopus on a puree' of celeriac and sunchokes, with hazelnuts and turnips. The octopus was not, in fact, crispy, and could have used some sauce to improve a dish that tended toward dry. But the elements themselves were tasty and the flavor combination quite interesting. Better, and certainly more Tuscan in feel, was the roasted duck leg.
Wild fowl and game and wild boar are what leap to mind when I reflect on great cool weather Tuscan food, and this duck dish fits the bill. It's braised and roasted and served with a jus with red wine added, and accompanied by a foie gras mousse and sweet-sour radicchio -- a great foil which cuts the richness of the dish. And of course, when all of these are accompanied by interesting wines paired well, the whole experience is elevated.

I'm always so stuffed after eating here that I can barely think about dessert. My theory, however, is that something rich and chocolate-y is always worth trying. If you have room and it's on the menu, try the chocolate mousse: I had it paired with avocado sauce and bruleed bananas on a recent visit. Often in Florence, however, I'll just go for a vin santo, the classic Tuscan dessert wine, amber in color and musty-sweet with notes of dried fruit and toasted nuts. The tradition in many places around town is to serve it with tozzetti, little almond biscotti, though I like the dessert wine on its own as well. It's the perfect way to cap off a great meal at a warm and inviting restaurant in the Oltrarno, this always-interesting and picturesque quarter of the lovely flower of a Renaissance city that is Firenze.

Via di Santo Spirito 64/66, Firenze, Italy
+39 055 211264
Open daily 12:30 - 2:30 pm, 7:30 - 11:00 pm (no lunch Sunday)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

RECIPE: Beet and Carrot Latkes: Not Just for Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a time for traditions, but I often think that new twists on old traditions can be the most fun way to celebrate. Latkes are of course the most popular food connected to Hanukkah, but really, they're pretty great any time of year. For festive winter holidays, using root vegetables makes seasonal sense -- and this recipe is a wonderful new way to take beets and carrots out of salads and put them into a starring role in a delicious starter or side dish: Beet and Carrot Latkes.

These latkes don't even require any potatoes to make them work. Their vibrant color makes them perfect for parties and entertaining. And the sweet earthiness of the vegetables make them a great match for exotic spices from North Africa and the Middle East: toss in some cumin or curry or Moroccan spice mix ras-el-hanout to add dimension. Paired with Greek style yogurt or labneh instead of the traditional sour cream, with some torn cilantro leaves on top, these latkes really shine. Enjoy!

(Serves 6)

2 cups shredded beets (raw)
2 cups shredded carrots (raw)
1/2 medium-sized onion, shredded on a grater
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup flour (more or less as needed), to make the mixture the thick but still wet
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 1 tsp. cumin, ground coriander, curry, or ras-el-hanout 
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying (approx 1 cup)
1 cup plain Greek yogurt or labneh
Small bunch of cilantro

- Mix the shredded beets and carrots together, tossing with salt and pepper (and spices, if using) to season. Add the eggs and mix, then add the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the mixture holds together on a spoon without running.

- In a frying pan, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan, until shimmering. Add the beet and carrot mixture in heaping spoonfuls to the pan (they should sizzle upon contact with the oil), pressing down on each spoonful to flatten it into pancake form. Fry on first side until golden brown around the edges, 2-3 minutes. Flip. Cook until golden brown on the other side. 

- Remove from pan with a spatula to a paper towel-lined platter or plate, to cool and absorb the grease. Continue this way until all of the mixture is used, adding more oil if necessary. 

- To serve, place the latkes on a platter and top with the yogurt/labneh and cilantro, or put the yogurt in a dish in the middle for guests to help themselves.

Friday, November 1, 2013

RECIPE: Zuppa di Zucca

Pumpkin time!

Yesterday was Halloween, today is All Saints' Day, and we're smack in the middle of pumpkin season. Depending on the kind of pumpkin you may have picked -- possibly literally -- you can use more than just its seeds as a snack. 
Pumpkin soup is a delicious seasonal dish, with a green salad and some crusty multigrain bread for lunch, or for a first course at dinner. The recipe is quite simple. The hardest part is probably peeling and cutting the pumpkin -- you'll need to put a little force into it, as pumpkin flesh is dense, and the outer skin is tough. Once you have the pumpkin cubed, it's pretty straightforward. 

And the dish is so versatile, you can use the basic recipe and tweak it slightly to make a delicious pasta sauce, a puree to go into a risotto, or as a sauce base for protein preparations (Grilled sea bass on pumpkin sauce? Pumpkin seed-crusted chicken with spicy pumpkin sauce? Yes, please!). It's also a great dish for a gorgeous, autumnal presentation. This soup one-ups the clam chowder in a bread bowl: serving pumpkin soup in a pumpkin shell is beautiful, natural, and just makes aesthetic and culinary sense. And finding the adorable serving pumpkins can be half the fun! So follow the recipe below, and with practice, you can modify it to make it your own...and to make pumpkin soup into something other than pumpkin soup. It's a jack (-o-lantern) of all trades!

(Serves 6-8 people)

3 medium-sized butternut squashes -- or any dense pumpkin variety
2 cloves garlic
8-10 cups vegetable broth
Salt & pepper to taste
Few sprigs of fresh thyme, sage, or basil
Spices to taste: garam masala, or smoked paprika, or curry powder

-Peel the butternut squash, slice in half, scoop out the seeds. 

- Cut into 1.5 to 2-inch dice.

-Place the butternut squash cubes in a large pot and cover with the vegetable stock. Add the garlic and the herbs and a dash of salt, and cover.

- Boil squash until tender but not falling apart, about 30 minutes or so.

- Remove from heat and let cool down a bit. Remove the herb sprigs.

- Alternatively, you could roast the pumpkin cubes in a 375 degree oven, tossed with a glug of olive oil and some salt and pepper. This will make the flavor a bit more concentrated.

- Using an immersion blender, or working in batches with a food processor, puree the squash until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with other spices if desired. 

- Top with chopped fresh herbs (thyme, basil, sage, or parsley, to taste) and serve. 

*Special touch: I like to drizzle a balsamic vinegar reduction over top, as in the photo above -- it gives some extra pop and a sweet-sour finish to the soup that cuts the rich creaminess of the pumpkin. Very Modenese (Italy)!