You know what's great about being a grown-up, and a female one at that? You know how, when you're a little girl, you like to have pretend tea parties? Some generous family member buys you a toy tea set: a tiny plastic teapot with matching cups -- dainty little things with pink flowers on the side. Then you line up all your teddy bears and dollies, and pour each one a cup of invisible pretend tea. You might drop invisible pretend sugar cubes in the cups, or lay a delicate invisible pretend finger sandwich beside each one. The guests don't really drink the tea: after all, they aren't alive and don't move. These stuffed animals are kind of lame guests actually -- they just sit there, they don't contribute to the discussion, and they don't really add any personality to the event. You take a pretend sip, you pretend taste the pretend sweetness, and pretend feel the pretend warmth flowing down your throat.
So then, what's great about being an all-grown-up big girl, is that you get to do it all for real. Real food, real flavor, real tea in your pink teacup, and best of all, real friends. And you can drink wine! Last night, me and 7 lovely ladies got together for a fall dinner party. My friend Rachel has recently come into her grandmother's china, an elaborate set in pastel pink and blue, straight out of Cinderella, and, in an email entitled simply "Food Love", she invited us all over to put them to use. In keeping with the seasonal theme, Rachel roasted a chicken with fennel, and her roommate Ashley made sweet earthy roasted beets. The rest of the girls contributed appetizers (almond-stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto), sides (scalloped potatoes and an heirloom tomato bread pudding), dessert (homemade from-scratch apple tart), and a fall salad with apples, walnuts, blue cheese, and dried cranberries. I was in charge of soup, and so supplied a roasted butternut squash number, all dolled up with fried sage and Parmesan tuiles. Devotion to the cause came through in each woman's contribution: it was all really delicious.
So, decked out in our finest party dresses, we ate quite well, indulged in a little playing pretend, and talked about girlie topics: baby names, boyfriends and husbands, career paths, and the patron saint of delicious indulgence, Ina Garten. (Admittedly, mostly we talked about what we were eating, in minute and glorious detail.) We dutifully washed and dried and put away between courses, and mused over the fact that, had there been boys in our ranks, we'd certainly have fewer hands helping out.
In spite of the night's feminine bent, we did allow one male into our little coven: Mutty Pitu Burritu, the traveling stuffed wonder dog. Mutty was an exemplary ambassador for the two groups he represented: males and stuffed animals. Not only did he help with the dishes, he was the life of the party: drinking wine, tasting the roasted fennel, posing for pictures with the girls. The wild child that he is, he even ended up lying across the dinner table at some point. This charmer is a different breed from those tiresome teddies of tea parties past.
Sometimes it's rough being a grown-up, but playdates like these make it all worthwhile.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Fried Sage and Parmesan Tuiles
You know those movies where a somewhat inept regular guy somehow ends up with the task of taking a woman hostage, possibly even murdering her, but she manages to use her wiles to unravel his plans? I felt like that hapless anti-hero as I tried to cut the squash in half for this recipe. As I tried to stab through its flesh over and over again, I was basically bargaining with it -- groveling with the tough, unflappable squash for every inch of headway. In the end I got the last laugh, though: after splitting it open and forcing it into a four-hundred-degree oven for an hour, I pulverized the thing to a pulp. Revenge is sweet.
Two 2 1/2 - 3 pound butternut squashes
1/2 head garlic (about 6 cloves)
tiny drizzle olive oil
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
1/3 cup half-and-half
1 Tbs chopped fresh sage + 16 fresh sage leaves
3 Tbs maple syrup
2 Tbs butter
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400°F. Slice each squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and surrounding stringy flesh and discard (or, if you are my mother, save the seeds, wash, salt, dry, and roast them, and nosh on them to stay awake during Dancing With the Stars). Place them face-down on a baking sheet.
Slice about 1/2 cm off the top off each clove of garlic, and drizzle a small amount of olive oil over the exposed tops. Place the head on the baking sheet with the squash. Place it all in the oven and bake for 1 hour, or until the squash is soft, smooshy, and slightly browned. You can make the fried sage in the meantime.
If you have an immersion blender, scoop flesh out of skin, and place in large pot over low heat. Squeeze cloves of roasted garlic out of skin into the pot. Add half of broth, half of water, half-and-half, maple syrup and 1 tablespoon chopped sage. Use immersion blender to blend soup until it is a smooth puree. Add enough of remaining broth and water, blending them in with the immersion blender, to get soup to desired consistency. Melt in 1 tablespoon butter and season generously with salt and pepper.
If you have a food processor or blender, scoop squash flesh directly into its bowl in batches, adding garlic, broth, water, sage, and half-and-half in batches. Pour completed batches into large pot over low heat. Add broth and/or water to adjust consistency of soup. Stir in maple syrup and 1 tablespoon butter, and season generously with salt and pepper.
To plate, ladle soup into bowls, and top each bowl with 2 fried sage leaves and 1 Parmesan tuile.
Fried sage leaves:
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add sage leaves, and saute until lightly brown around edges. Remove to a paper towel, to catch excess butter.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Using a cookie cutter as a guide, sprinkle Parmesan into 8 3-inch diameter discs. The discs should be very thin and lacy. Place in oven until edges brown, about 5 minutes. Allow to cool before carefully removing tuiles from wax paper.
Notes: This soup was inspired by this and this. Be creative with the liquids to suit your fancy: replace the vegetable broth with chicken broth, apple juice or cider, or maybe add a splash of white wine.