The Soup that Keeps On Giving
Article and Photo by Jane Pellicciotto
My mother, a self-proclaimed non-cook, proudly tells me on the phone almost every Thanksgiving that she’s making my pumpkin soup—a recipe that’s been passed up rather than down. We don’t get together at holidays as often as we used to. My small nuclear family prefers thousands of miles between us and we’ve matured to the point where we realize it isn’t a crisis—indeed it can be boon to one’s sanity—if we don’t congregate at every holiday. This way, I can also avoid a gravy crisis when my brother, in his manic efforts to clean as he cooks, discards my turkey pan juices, thereby robbing me of using my fat separator.
I’ve tried to get my mother to graduate from canned pumpkin, imposing on her my desire to fully embrace the pumpkin in its original form, or at least a cousin like butternut or delicata. But she lives in Peoria. The last I checked, they only grow GMO corn, which you also cannot embrace in original form.
Sometimes we make the soup in tandem, each from our own kitchens. Other times, she’s on her own as I’ve set my sights on a dish that adds a splash of much-needed color next to otherwise predominantly off-white dishes.
Once, when I was traveling to Peoria, my mother said, “If I host the dinner here (rather than at my aunt’s), you have to help me cook. And I want you to make the pumpkin soup.” Which really means me cooking, not us cooking.
I liked nothing better, of course. But I’d be arriving too late to help shop. So I gave her a list, on which was leeks, which are sautéed in butter till soft before adding the pumpkin. But when I arrived, there were no leeks. “Why did you buy fennel?” I asked.
“Aren’t those leeks?” shrieked my mother, who was more worried than I was, imagining the soup was a no-go if we
lacked one ingredient.
There must have been a misplaced fennel bulb in the leek section at the grocery store. My mother didn’t know better and neither did the cashier who asked my mother what it was. “Leeks,” said my mother. I told her she made out like a bandit, fennel being more the expensive vegetable.
“No problem, we’ll use it as a palate cleanser after the meal.” She looked confused so I reminded her that my grandmother (on the Italian side) used to put out a dish of chopped fennel bulb, common in southern Italy instead of dessert, along with other vegetables like carrots or celery. Still, she insisted on going out again to get leeks. (Hint: onions will do.) I am only adamant that she not skip the lime-sour cream drizzle on top.
Now, the soup has become more hers than mine. But the first time I made it, it was bland. I added curry powder and everyone loved it. Now I start with carrot, celery and onion instead of just leeks, which boosts the flavor.
The second time, I was standing in my teeny kitchen in Maryland. Cutting boards and bowls teetered on the radiator and on top of the trashcan. As I peeled the butternut squash, NPR was doing a delightful show with famous chefs pretending to ring a doorbell, enter a house and announce their favorite Thanksgiving recipe. Jacques Pepin arrived with, you guessed it, pumpkin soup. Synchronicity! His soup contained crabmeat however.
So I shut off the stove, ran downstairs, hopped over the back fence and grabbed a container of Maryland blue crab meat from the Safeway behind my apartment. Unfortunately, everyone loved it. This modification set a bad standard, as crabmeat was terribly expensive.
Modifications have included the occasional parsnip. I also add a potato or two—a tip from a chef for a creamier soup. I’ve created an Asian-inspired version with fresh ginger, cumin and coconut milk.
And you’re not stuck with pumpkin. There are all sorts of squashes (squash?) to choose from. Some are blue, some are pink, some have big warts, some are blue and have big warts, some are green and white striped. Ask a vendor to suggest the best squash for your recipe.
So this year, make soup. Even with all that food on the holiday table, a touch of soup ignites the palate. And don’t forget to pass the recipe down, up or sideways, especially to your mother.
Jane Pellicciotto is an occasional contributor to this blog, a cabbage worm wrangler and avid cook. She helps positive-change businesses thrive at Allegro Design and writes about the intersection of business, transformation and well-being at EnoughGood.
It just shows that every experience has a learning component. I will never confuse fennel and leeks again. Thanks, Jane, for all the variations on the theme of pumpkin soup. Beautifully done.