This tasty soup has a natural sweetness because of the pumpkin, bell pepper and onion, and a slightly earthy flavor from the mushrooms. If you like spicy dishes, you could add a chopped, dried ancho or pasilla pepper to give this soup a deeper, pungent flavor. Any of the winter squashes can be used in place of the pumpkin. I like to use butternut, blue Hubbard, Delicata and Sweetie Dumpling squash. Take care in adding salt — if your stock is salted already, you don’t want to oversalt the soup.
• 2- to 2 1/2 -pound pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
• 5 cups vegetable or mushroom stock
• About 3/4 cup dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms, cut into small pieces
• 2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 medium onion, diced medium fine
• 6 cloves garlic, minced
• 5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and torn or cut into bite-sized pieces
• 1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
• 1 generous tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crumbled
• 8 fresh sage leaves, stacked and cut crosswise into very thin chiffonade, or 1 generous teaspoon crumbled dried sage leaves
• About 1 teaspoon salt (if stock is not salted)
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 pinch ground cayenne pepper, optional
• 4 dashes Angostura bitters
• 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Put pumpkin or squash in a heavy-bottomed soup pot and cover with stock. Add dried mushroom pieces and bay leaves. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a small sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and shiitakes and cook another minute or so. Stir in bell pepper and thyme, and cover for 2 minutes. Transfer sautéed vegetables into soup pot with squash. Add sage, season with salt and pepper, and cook over low heat, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes.
Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food mill. Puree all of the soup, if desired, or leave about a third of the soup chunky if you want the texture. Return soup to the pot and season with cayenne, if desired, bitters and lemon juice and stir well. Heat gently, covered, for a few minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt or pepper. This soup is actually better made in advance, refrigerated and reheated just before serving.
How to prepare a pumpkin as a serving vessel
For a festive presentation, I like to serve pumpkin soup in a hollowed-out pumpkin. To prepare one, wash the outside of the whole pumpkin and dry it. Cut a lid from the top of the pumpkin to make a deep serving bowl. Remove all the seeds, stringy pulp and some of the pumpkin from the inside. The walls should be thick enough to hold the hot soup and sturdy enough to prevent the pumpkin from collapsing. The pumpkin can be prepared a day in advance; keep it in the refrigerator to prevent bacteria from growing.
Remove the pumpkin from the fridge about an hour or two before serving so it can come to cool room temperature. Some instructions recommend rinsing the inside of the pumpkin with boiling water to warm it and kill any bacteria, if that is a concern. I heat the pumpkin on a baking sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes or so, depending on the size. Heating the pumpkin helps keep the soup hot, once it is poured in. However, do not cook the pumpkin for so long it gets soft and collapses.
When ready to serve, remove the pumpkin from the oven and place it on a heatproof serving platter or shallow bowl. Pour the hot soup into the heated pumpkin shell and put the lid on it. Ladle the hot soup directly from the pumpkin into bowls and serve immediately. A 2- to 2 1/2-pound pumpkin easily will hold eight to 10 cups of soup.
Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist who loves playing with food. She delights in kitchen alchemy — the blending of harmonious seasonal foods, herbs and spices.
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