By Alan Roettinger
As a private chef, I was privileged to observe the wealthy, powerful and famous up close. I discovered that although they never – ever – had to eat anything they didn’t like, some of them actually had surprisingly simple tastes. What surprised me even more was that during the holidays, nearly every single one of my clients reverted to their old family favorites. These normally (sometimes unbearably) sophisticated people genuinely preferred to eat exactly what mom used to make, right down to the mashed yams with mini-marshmallow topping. Something about the holidays brings us all together at roughly the same level, which is a little heartwarming when you understand the kind of people I’m talking about.
One of the standard dishes I was expected to offer was butternut squash soup. The parameters I was given didn’t allow too much room for interpretation. My butternut squash soup inevitably tasted essentially the same as it did in every other household in America. I didn’t mind being ordinary on these occasions, because my main job was to please my clients, and with very few exceptions, the familiar is what pleased them most at holiday time.
At my home, on the other hand, my guests expect an upgrade on tradition. As much as they appreciate the old family favorites, they come to my table knowing that I will be coloring outside the lines. I seek to please them as much as I would please my clients, but I also aim to offer surprise, which is the one true spice of life.
The first holiday season after I went vegan, I made a six-course dinner for family and friends. I decided it was time to shred the rules on family tradition and knock some socks off.
A Very Different Butternut Squash Soup
Makes 8 servings
3 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
12 cloves garlic, minced
4 red peppers, roasted, peeled and diced
1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced (about 4 cups)
2 small yams, peeled and diced (about 3 cups)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
8 cups water
3 vegetable bouillon cubes
4 bay leaves
Pinch of saffron
½ teaspoon hot red chile powder
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon snipped chives, for garnish
Heat the oil in a large soup pot over high heat until hot and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the onions and stir until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-high and add the garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until the vegetables are nearly dry, about 4 minutes. Add the roasted peppers and cook, stirring frequently, for another 2 minutes. Add the butternut squash, yams, salt and smoked paprika, and stir to mix well. Add the water, bouillon cubes and bay leaves. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer, and cook until the vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
Working in batches, transfer the contents of the pot to a blender and process until smooth. Strain the soup into a clean soup pot and add the saffron and hot chile powder. Season with pepper to taste. Reheat the soup over medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. Serve at once, garnished with the chives.