Despite the recent heat wave here in Los Angeles, autumn is still creeping in on dark furry haunches and settling over The Kenmore Arms.
No more endless summer. These days, when Luca does his homework after school, I call upon a solicitous halo of light to protect him from the encroaching shadows.
So engrossed is he in his math problems that he doesn't notice me watching him from the living room. He sits on his heel, scratches out answers with his pencil and interrupts the fitful silence with a high-pitched rendition of Lady Gaga's "Telephone." He knows every word.
Hello hello baby you called? I can't hear a thing
I have got no service in the club you see see.
Wha-wha-what did you say? You're breakin' up on me
Sorry I cannot hear you, I'm kinda busy.
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I love this time of year. Houses love it too, I think. In contrast to summer which is all about communing with nature, autumn brings with it a reawakened sense of domesticity. Homes become hives of activity, don't you find? These days, I find myself in the kitchen more often, poring over recipes, tidying shelves, polishing silver and filling the pantry with tasty ingredients so that when the baking mood strikes, I'll have everything at hand.
This past Friday was my turn to host a bi-monthly dinner with four trusted friends that we call "Girls' Night In." It's a much-revered outlet for us; we check in with each other, discuss what's new and usually end up talking late into the night about issues near and dear to us all. All conversation is sub rosa; nothing leaves the table. It's group therapy with people I love; I couldn't live without it.
I had already decided on making butternut squash soup as an appetizer and wasn't going to let the heat deter me from making it. (Besides, it always cools down at night here.)
Originally taken from one of my favorite cookbooks "Great Food Fast", I've modified the recipe slightly (it stipulates 4 cups of water, but I use chicken stock; also, I omit the 1/4 cup of fresh orange juice) to give it a more satisfying depth of flavor. I serve it with a dollop of créme fraiche and a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds.
Timesaver Tip: You do NOT have to peel the squash (quite a tricky task and one which makes some people avoid butternut squash entirely). Just wash the skin well and chop into pieces (see below). It completely dissolves into nothing when you purée it. Thanks to my husband for discovering this.
Pureed Butternut Squash Soup (adapted from Great Food Fast)
Serves 4; Prep Time: 25 minutes; Total time: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 piece (2 inches) peeled fresh ginger, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 3/4 pounds butternut squash, seeds removed, and flesh cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Coarse salt and pepper
Creme fraiche (optional)
Spicy Pumpkin Seeds (optional; recipe below)
1. Melt the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Cook the onion until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and squash; cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in 4 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat. Simmer until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Puree the soup in batches. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Serve hot, with creme fraiche, pepper and pumpkin seeds, if desired.
Spicy Pumpkin Seeds
1 cup raw green pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients and toss to coat. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet; bake until puffed and browned, about 10 minutes.
I'm telling you, it is beyond delicious.
We sat around the table until almost 1am and then I cleaned up everything in a herculean burst of energy so I wouldn't have to face a pile of dirty dishes in the morning. Needless to say, Saturday was spent in a more slothful fashion. I draped myself upon every chair or sofa within striking distance and spent the day with a thick book and a cup of tea within reach at all times. Dusk couldn't arrive too soon for me. I was asleep by 8pm.
* * * * *
On Sunday, I finished "Wolf Hall", Hilary Mantel's spellbinding (and Booker Prize-winning) masterpiece about Thomas Cromwell and it was a bittersweet moment when I finally relinquished my grip on it. It's a compulsive read -- which may account for the lack of a post last week; blame Ms. Mantel, not me -- and my brain is now craving another hit of Tudor England and its brutal splendor. (Fortunately, there's a sequel in the works.)
"Wolf Hall" is the perfect novel to read as the days contract and the nights grow colder, packed as it is with images of frigid castles, late night feasts, sweating sickness, fog, terror and of course the ever-lurking evil of life under Henry VIII.
Each copy should come with a stipulation:
For an optimum experience, read this book at dusk when darkness begins to tarnish the horizon and a five o'clock shadow slowly seeps across your floors. Should you choose to read under different conditions (i.e. while suntanning and sipping a fruity cocktail), results may vary.