Although winter weather often makes me want to hibernate, a picnic in the snow is an enticing reason to get outside. Pack up some savoury bread pudding made in muffin cups for individual, easily portable servings; a thermos full of this squash and apple soup; and perhaps an almond butter oatmeal cookie or two for dessert and you have yourself an al fresco feast. A few years ago, some girlfriends and I spent an afternoon in Muskoka, snowshoeing out on Three Mile Lake, scouting for the perfect picnic spot. Once we found it, we carved ourselves some ‘seats’ in the snow and enjoyed a mug full of this soup.
Even when I am not preparing for a winter picnic, I like to make a big pot of soup on a Sunday afternoon and then I have it for the week. It freezes well, so you can pack as individual servings and then defrost for a quick lunch or dinner. Make this soup spicier if you like, or eliminate the cayenne altogether if you prefer it milder. Sometimes I will add a dash of maple syrup to the pureed soup, just for a little Canadian flare.
MAKES APPROXIMATELY 8-10 CUPS
2 tbsp unsalted butter (or 2 tbsp olive oil)
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium-sized butternut squash, skin and seeds removed, roughly cut into cubes
2 medium-sized apples – choose something that is a combination of sweet and tart like Spy or Fuji
1 tbsp fresh thyme
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch all spice
4 to 5 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper
handful toasted pumpkin seeds
tip: To make whole squash easier to work with, cut in half and remove seeds with a spoon or ice cream scoop. Place squash cut side down on baking sheet lined with tin foil. Bake in 400F oven for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. This softens the squash and means less work to peel it.
Melt butter over medium heat in large pot (or heat oil if using instead). Add the onion and cook until really softened, about 15-20 minutes. The longer cooking time for the onions is worth it, so wait it out. Add cinnamon, allspice and cayenne and stir into softened onions. You can always add more cayenne later so best not to overdo it in the beginning (I learned this the hard way!).
Add the squash and apples to put and toss to combine with onions and spices. Add brown sugar. Pour 4 cups of the vegetable stock into the pot. Add fresh thyme.
Simmer for 20 minutes. Using a fork, test to see if squash and apple are fully softened. Both should be tender enough to easily insert fork all the way through. Continue to simmer for another 5-10 minutes if squash and apple are not fully cooked.
Remove from heat. Blend until smooth with a hand blender. You can adjust thickness with remaining vegetable stock (or water). Add more cayenne if you like a little more spice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Return to heat to warm before serving. Spoon soup into individuals bowls. Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds.